‘Love’ is a Many-Splintered Thing, in NJ Rep Comedy

mad-love-cast(L-R) Jared Michael Delaney, Graham Techler, Alex Trow and Brittany Proia co-star in “Mad Love,” the play by Marisa Smith opening this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS

To cut to the chase, it covers ground that includes sexual violence, the emotional emptiness of 21st century hook-up culture, and the very real damage wrought by the college frat-house party scene. It’s also worth noting that “Mad Love” is “a romantic comedy for cynical times” — one that further folds in talk of frozen sperm, cabbage soup, super-collectible baseball cards and “a lizard named Pogo.”  

Opening this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company, the ensemble piece marks the second collaboration between the Vermont-based playwright Marisa Smith and the Long Branch professional troupe, following 2013’s politically charged domestic squabble “Saving Kitty.” Like that previous project, it teams Smith with frequent NJ Rep director Evan Bergman, himself a specialist in just this shade of dark comedy. It also reunites actress Alex Trow with the central role of Sloane Hudson, a twenty-something professional from a wealthy family, whose experiences in the fraternity basements of the Ivy League have apparently left her with some conflicted notions about love, commitment and potential parenthood. 

“The hook-up culture in college has had repercussions for Sloane,” says Smith, who with husband Eric Kraus is one-half of the Smith & Kraus publishing concern that’s issued more than 600 full-length plays, one-acts, reference works and acting guides. “She was scared by a traumatic event back then, and has become emotionally detached.”

Ms. Trow, who starred in the premiere production of “Mad Love” at Vermont’s Barrette Center for the Arts, is joined here by a trio of fellow newcomers to the NJ Rep stage, including Graham Techler as Brandon, a good-looking young teacher whose status as a purely physical attraction is thrown into uncharted waters, when Sloane asks him to be the father of her future child (albeit not her husband or live-in lover) via artificial insemination. 

Brandon, as it turns out, is struggling with his own rather complicated live-in arrangement — a bro-cave apartment shared with his brother “Doug the De-Fenestrator” (Jared Michael Delany), a frat-house legend whose personal journey through beer-pong party hell has left him literally brain damaged and evidently unemployable. Enter a Ukrainian hooker (Brittany Proia) hired as a birthday pick-me-up for Doug, and things get considerably more complicated still. 

“I got the inspiration for these characters from interviewing Dartmouth sorority women…and getting a memorable tour of a frat basement” says Smith, a Princeton-born product of an upper-class college town milieu. “The character of ‘The Defenestrator’ is also based on a real guy, who actually jumped out the fraternity house window…although in his case he was so drunk, and so relaxed, that nothing bad happened to him.”

Calling from a somewhat chilly “Buffalo Bill” House — the historic Long Branch cottage (once owned by the press agent of legendary Wild West showman William Cody) where guest artists often stay during their projects at NJ Rep — the playwright offers words of praise for her director; the set designer Jessica Parks (“it’s like an advent calendar, with things that pop out and back in again”), and the cast, particularly Trow, who “is just amazing…she knows this part so well going into it.”

“I’ve done some minor tweaking, some fine tuning on the script,” says Smith on her recent stay in Long Branch, during which time the setting of the play’s final scene morphed from a restaurant to the boardwalk at Coney Island. “Just the other day an actor inadvertently changed one word for another, and we all agreed that it worked far better than what was originally written.”

“I steal from actors as much as possible,” adds the experienced stage performer turned playwright and publisher. “They have good instincts!”

Professing that “I don’t see how you can direct or produce a show without the playwright being present,” Smith makes the observation that “to me the playwright and the director are mom and dad, and the actors are the grown up children who take what you’ve given them and make their way in the world.” 

“I’m harsh on my own work…I understand my pitfalls as a writer,” states the mother of two sons, who tried her own hand at playwriting only after becoming a publisher of other people’s work. “In a way, the best playwriting is sort of ‘no’ playwriting…sometimes the words are just the icing on the relationships and behaviors of the characters.”

Previewing on October 21 at 8 p.m. and October 22 at 3 p.m., “Mad Love” opens on Saturday night, October 22 and continues Thursdays through Sundays until November 20. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($45) are available by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.



I’m a Wetsider…a Cricker. A native of that peculiar cranny of the Monmouth County, NJ “Bayshore” that sits just short of the Atlantic Ocean, and, for much of the time I spent growing up there, on the wrong side of not one but TWO highways PLUS a set of railroad tracks. 

You can say I’m “Straight Outta Compton’s Creek.” Straight, but (as it turned out) not at all immune from occasionally getting bullied for being a “fag” (even my mom got into the act: “Why ya’s gotta use words like that? Whaddaya think yer ROYALTY?”). I’m old…very old…very white, and, despite the best efforts of several dedicated employees of the Middletown Township school system, wholly uneducated.

Straight Outta Compton's Creek

There’s a bit of the (not terribly focused) striver in me, but at the same time a barely suppressed streak of hillbilly-grade Lazy and Shiftless…a general knee-jerk disdain for authority that isn’t always grounded in reality, and (given the environment I had to operate within) an inclination toward isolation that has to be consciously fought against every day, if I’m to maintain any sort of a place in this world.

I came of age, besieged by allergies and beset by nervous tics, in a neglected backwater that sat just outside the borders of “normal” suburbia, polite society, and anything that might merit getting graced with something…shiny new shopping centers, skilled jobs…that could have maybe lifted us out of the mucky marshland we were mired in. As my grandma used to say, “Ya’s can’t have nuttin’ NICE!”

And yet, from my folks I received a most valuable gift: a real experience of a part of America…a BIGass part of America…that baffles and flusters and even frightens a lot of folks who haven’t spent time there; haven’t lived it. Despite the props and the posturing, it’s nothing to be frightened of…believe me, folks…but it takes some understanding, and if you’re not up to the task (or the long read to follow) then just take it here for Frankie Laine’s performance of the theme from TV’s “Rawhide” (“Don’t try to understand ’em; just rope and throw and brand ’em”).   

My father…the original Angry Commuter in those years before talk radio…was the sort of guy who was prone to purple-faced, spittle-lipped, vein-popping apoplexy; who when he wasn’t taking it out on the family and the pets could be found attempting to run over a couple of little kids who hit his station wagon with a snowball, or actually booby-trapping the foam rubber ball on his car antenna with embedded razor blades, as a deterrent to mall-parking-lot mischief. 

Presidential campaign season was an especially rich time around the household; an interval when the mid-summer decorative trinkets and gewgaws (rustic folk-art figures of watermelon-eating picaninnies) would soon be supplanted by patriotic tchotchkes and items in support of George Wallace, Nixon, Reagan, Pat Buchanan…even a threatened write-in of David Duke. 

I was taught well for sure…but maybe because of my standing as the oldest kid (and therefore the only one who really remembered what it was like to live in an urban place) I could never quite get the hang of it; could never really carry on in the old man’s name…certainly could never single-handedly build a garage or finish an attic like he could. For a time there I’d even spend portions of my summers with my grandparents up in the city; a sort of “Reverse Fresh Air Fund” in more ways than one, as we’ll touch upon in a moment.

Frank's Signs

Still, these are my people; this is where I’m from…and it’s as a lead-blooded Wetsider that I attempt to explain the One Thing that unites our ornery kith and kind.

You know, the One Thing…as in, if you had only one thing in this whole world, how hard would you work to hang onto it?

That One Thing you couldn’t do without; the one thing, tangible or no, that defines your own sense of worth…that spurs you to haul yourself out of bed in the morning; that colors how you choose to interact (or not) with the rest of the world?

Could be your family…your faith…your face, your fame, your house or your car. Your “success,” your sexual preference, your youth, your senses of decency/ superiority/ survival/ humor. Your reputation, your tribe, your guns, your pets, your victimhood, your centeredness, your slabbed and graded copy of Amazing Fantasy No. 15? 

Whether you wear it on your social media sleeve, or bury it like a ticking time capsule, chances are you’ve got your One Thing. So the flipside of the question is: if you were dealing with someone who you knew was all about THEIR One Thing…would you move to take it away from them?

THEIR faith? THEIR home? Their success, their survival mechanisms, their sexy prefs, their pets? Their guns? If you DID manage to take it away from them, what happens next? Do you even care, or is it just Mission Accomplished?

Do they “see the light” and come quickly and cleanly around to your way of thinking? Do they withdraw from the world, or do they crack and lash out? Does anything else ever really take the place of their One Thing?

I only ask because I make no secret of embracing my heritage as a Wetsider…and chances are excellent that if you’re reading this (or, really, if you read anything at all), you’re not familiar with the “Upper Wet Side” of my youth. Suffice to say it was one of those dyin’ places located off the main route…a place of dirt roads that dead-ended into skeeter-infested swamps of cattail reeds. A place of washed-out bridges that put the next, equally dismal town just out of reach. A place that sat literally within eyeshot (and a cheap bus ride) of the big city…but might as well have been on Pluto’s bastard moon for the amount of light and heat and energy that reached us there.

It was the kind of place where a “normal” house would butt up against a shack on cinder blocks, with a tarpaper flap for a front door. The kind of place where some of your classmates came to school with no shoes; where cars would roll into your neighborhood from other communities, busted sofas and refrigerators strapped to their roof, and dump their castoff cargo with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the town fathers. 

It was the kind of place where everybody knew somebody who got sent away to juvie lockup, or had a sister who got knocked up, or a family member who committed suicide, or even a family member who murdered another family member. A place where all of the symptomatic bugaboos of “urban” life were present and accounted for, in this dark holler so far away from the scare-story “street” settings of the evening news.

E Kburg Robt Zarinsky murder 1968

And above it all hovered the spectre and the stench of the Fish Factory…the neighborhood’s only employer of any significant scale (that is, until the also-fragrant sewage treatment plant and the county mulch-pile came on line a few years later), and a grim complex that…with its belching chimneys, grimy windows, foreboding fences and barracks-style outbuildings…resembled nothing so much as a gulag workfarm in the much-feared Communist Bloc.

Perched at the edge of a filthy bay clogged with stinging jellies and toxic, gelatinous black tarballs, the plant processed the unwanted little junk fish known as menhaden into chicken feed and fertilizer…and at any time of the day or night, the stacks would spew a thick, oily, heavy effluvium that hovered close to the ground and enchanted everything (from the leaves on the trees to the laundry on the clothesline) with a death-reek of rotting bilge and brooding desperation.

(It should be pointed out that on some rare occasions, if the wind shifted just so, you’d get a whiff of the fragrance plant up the road apiece…perhaps even a rare “perfumed harbor whore” confluence of nose-hair-singing olfactory excitements)

Belford mulch facility

Granted, there were modes of escape; literal as that “good” side of the highway that beckoned just a mad dash away ‘cross four lanes of traffic; accessible as those buses and trains that shuttled persons unknown to the forbidden big city; figurative as the handful of books inside the little branch library that would eventually get shut down by the township. But the Wetsider didn’t need to escape…he had already made his escape, to this curiously coccooning place. The Wetsider was Home.

Of course one needn’t be so specifically from my Wet Side to have known places that were similarly touched by despair and red-lined completely out of the action. But consider the Wetsider, just for a moment. He’s somebody you don’t often cross paths with if you’re not FROM there…a person who’s very easy to overlook; who from most folks’ vantage point doesn’t much show his face in the greater game of whack-a-mole. 

Nobody seeks his counsel or quotes him; no one will ever grant him power of attorney or ask him to be their Best Man. He’ll never travel much…maybe not even to the city some 40-50 miles away. Never be named to a board of trustees; never be appointed to any position of responsibility, never get so much as a door-crack glimpse of the mechanisms of power and influence. To paraphrase a very wise man, he’ll “never get a dinner.”   

So who then is a Wetsider that you might be familiar with…Steven Van Zandt? Negative: lived about fifty feet into the dry side; a world away. Kevin Smith? YES on wet…but then again NO because of innate intelligence, ambition, determination to derail the seemingly locked-in sled/tree crash of his Bayshore-by-birth destiny. 

Celeb chef David Burke? Dry side. NFL running back Donald Brown? High side (Atlantic Highlands). Film actor Lou Taylor Pucci? Too much outside-the-Bayshore-box breeding in his background. No, the famous Wetsider…if indeed there ever was such a thing…ran more along the lines of Terry Alden, Jimmy Coonan, Sal Naturile (look them all up). 

In his most crystalline “cricker” form, the Wetsider is the criminal mastermind who steals cigarettes from the gas station by breaking the window with his face, then commandeers a toddler’s bicycle from a nearby yard to make his getaway, then lets the cops simply follow the dotted line of blood spots…like something out of a Sunday “Family Circus” layout…straight to his home, located just a few doors away from the gas station (true story).

The Wetsider is the guy on the street corner who will sell you a video game console that turns out to be a brick in a box. The Wetsider is the guy who will purchase a video game console that turns out to be a brick in a box, from his neighbor on a street corner…then return to the corner (where the neighbor still stands conducting business) with multiple generations of relatives, who proceed to beat the guy up, and reportedly butt-rape him (also true story).

The Wetsider is the entrepreneur who opens a fish-market business just yards away from the commuter ferry terminal, and bitches about sitting around all day with no customers, then getting caught in a traffic jam just as he tries to shut down and leave for the evening (true all).

The Wetsider is the onetime scourge of the neighborhood that ages into the fat fortysomething guy who still lives with his mother; who stole your dad’s car when he was a teenager and pedaled off on your little brother’s kiddie-size bike ten years later; who once upon a time did things like beat up the neighborhood letter carrier and burn his bag of mail; who suffered a debilitating stroke in his thirties and wound up a gouty speechless slumped-over husk, being pushed up and down the street by his elderly mom in a rickety old wheelchair (so true).

The Wetsider is the guy who will attempt to tie up a drooping muffler/tailpipe assembly, on a still-running car, with large Brillo pads; screaming in front of an audience of young onlookers as his fingers burn and chunks of soap and tiny filaments of steel wool fall into his eyes (guaranteed true stories).

The Wetsider is your friend’s toothless dad who watches cars all day from a lawn chair on the corner. The Wetsider is your friend’s mom who bails on her brood one day, riding off into the sunset on the back of some greasy biker’s hog. The Wetsider is your neighbor who got foreclosed upon and wound up living on a flat metal barge tied up in the creek. The Wetsider is your other neighbor who “renovated” his house sans permit; accidentally knocked down half of it, and wound up with an unsellable water-filled hole in the ground, a modular shed hastily retro-fitted as his residence, and a sheriff’s order to quit the premises.

The Wetsider is that kid you knew from grade school, who jumped on a dare off a rusty old train trestle, and landed in an inch or two of crick water, quadriplegic for life. The Wetsider is your other old friend who celebrated his unlikely graduation from high school with a street dragrace in front of his house…living fast, dying young, maybe not so much leaving a pretty corpse.

The everyday Wetsider is the local yokel who’s still working the same entry-level job at McDonald’s some forty years after donning the paper hat. The Wetsider First Class is he who sprang into action in Superstorm Sandy’s wake…not to lend his neighbor a hand, but to scour curbsides with his street-pirate’s pickup truck for scrap-metal appliances, ripped-out copper, and other quickly re-appropriated memories.  


See, the Wetsider’s been told he’s a worthless piece of SHIT pretty much all his life…and he knows it, in that gut-level way that passes for understanding. 

Yet even the Wetsider finds a way to face each dawning day; finds somebody or something to blame for his travails; finds something or somebody over whom he can lord a certain threadbare and faded hierarchy. 

We figured out pretty early on what our lot was as Wetsiders, and how we stood with the folks from the other, “good” side of the highway and the unseen world beyond. If the whole neighborhood-dump thing didn’t drive the point home, then the Fish Factory served to brand us with an unmistakable moss-bunker kiss. 

They could literally SMELL the cricker on us; could sum us up in an instant. We might get bused to their school for a year or two, but when class was dismissed it was expected we’d hustle ourselves on back to our own kind.

We didn’t have much to keep us occupied, during those humid, sunbaked, bug-clouded summers of stink and boredom. Oh, we had the occasional abandoned car to pounce on in the weeds; every now and then enough junk plywood and debris to salvage into a Little Rascals-level fort or hot rod or unseaworthy craft…but above all else, we had the Sprayer Man. 

The Sprayer Man in his mini-flatbed Jeep truck, outfitted with a pesticide fogging machine that buzzed like the sparking spaceships from the old Flash Gordon serials; that announced its blocks-away approach like a swarm of monster-movie giant locusts, that blanketed the drab crabgrass hues of our neighborhood in a thick blue DDT fog designed to annihilate the skeeters that spawned by the billions in the standing waters of the surrounding marsh. 

The fact that it did little to keep any of us from “gettin’ bit” didn’t temper our excitement one bit. We’d charge out to the street and follow behind, biking, running, laughing, facing full-blast into the pretty blue belched-out poison that issued from the truck…visibility close to zero, and with no thought to any tumorous future that existed at a remove from the here and now.

In recent months we from the Wet Side have come to have a special connection with one who has emerged from plain sight to stand as our savior…a King in Orange. 

And the King in Orange is our Orange Crush is the Trump, and the Trump is our Sprayer Man returned; come to bathe us in His oily-sweet and strangely fragrant poison cloud. 

We drop what we’re doing when we hear Him coming; we rush to greet Him at the sound of his sputter and whine; we follow Him into the mucky swamp, down those streets that dead-end into the tall cattail reeds obscuring the horizon. We have been waiting for Him for a very long time, as it turns out…we just thought all along that we were waiting on somebody else. 

Not that any of this was ever really part of some well-thought-out PLAN, mind you…but we did get a kick out of seeing every “expert” Nostradamus David Brooks/George Will get curb-jawed during the course of the primary season. 

We were truly tickled to watch all your Scott Perry Grahams and Lindsey Huckabee Patakis fold faster than we could learn their names. 

DeLIGHTed, to witness the humiliation of Jeb, the marginalization of Mitt, the booing of boohoo Ted, the put-down of all those who we always suspected were “too good to drink with me.” 

Even a little bit ASTONISHED at ourselves, to realize that the whole wobbly facade of inevitability…the whole playbook we’d been browbeaten into accepting as sacred text…the whole impregnable donor-class money fortress could flop to the floor if you just blew on it hard enough. Like, for once we were actually looking at each other and wondering, did I do THAT?

A whole lot of magazines and papers and websites that we don’t read…and a whole lot of TV and radio shows that we don’t watch or listen to…have been struggling to get a handle on what the hell just happened; trying to squeeze it through a prism that just doesn’t jibe with our flat-earth point of view. 

Some of them ALMOST nailed it, too…like when The Atlantic (a magazine we don’t read) tossed off the notion of the Trump as representing a lucky “Powerball” ticket for His followers. Even closer to the cigar was when the New York Times (another rag we don’t read) likened the whole phenomenon to the “Prosperity Gospel” extolled by the likes of Creflo A. Dollar.

But how rock-bottom WRONG they all are, as they tell us over and over that the Trump has surfed a “wave of populist anger;” has seized upon “issues” that we supposedly care about, like income inequality, Wall Street shenanigans, globalization, trade imbalances, etc. 

The truth is that no true Wetsider gives a god-damn about any “issues” other than our own personal own; that we’d throw our neighbor, our brother, our grandmother, our newborn child under the bus if it came down to it…that there is NO more sovereign space than our immediate zone of comfort. 

In short, it’s all about ME…millions and millions and millions of ME. Gaze out upon a crowded Trump rally and you’ll see not a single gloriously unified entity, but a whole lot of individual Republics of New Freelandia, jostling for preferred space and jockeying for chosen-one status. 

What few alliances there are to be made are of the short-term, Machiavellian, reality-TV kind…and when we run out of perceived enemies we will most definitely turn upon our own; will feud and freeze-out and gossip and grind on down until mutual destruction is assured. Just like we did in our own family tree, where long-festering feuds remain rooted in those five dollars that weren’t paid back in 1948; that flip remark some long-gone person made in 1962.

Hey, you gotta have an enemy….be it the quaint old commies or the newfangled terrorists; the people you thought you were escaping when you loaded up the truck and moved to the Wet Side, or the ones that made you feel like a stranger on your own home turf. 

None of this works otherwise….and to prove it we point to the fact that our hometown always had a healthy two-party system back in the day: the suburban country-clubber Republicans from the “good” side of the highway, and the riled-up cricker Republicans from our side. 

Each side even had its own figurehead champions: Dame Judith from the “Who’s Who of American Women” and the Bush 41 fundraiser functions and the board of trustees of every entrenched organization in the state…and fat sweaty Cap’n Joe; purveyor of discount liquor, publisher of the local tabloid, proud owner of a trash incinerator, and father of the “Evil Clown” highway sign that’s been celebrated and reviled in equal measure. 

Both are passed now…but time was the local press was filled with the rancorous back-and-forth between the steadfast GOppers Judy and Joe, as they traded accusations, forced their colleagues to take sides, and waged open warfare over…over…uh, what was it again that we were all supposed to be so het up about?

Whatever it was, one thing is for sugarshit-sure: we created, perfected, gifted GOPamerica with The Joe ‘n Judy Show, the spirit of which plays out now on a grand national scale; its giant ghostly combatants battling in the sky over a breaded cutlet of “soul” that wouldn’t feed a sick possum.

Anyway, you can see how us Wetsiders are no strangers to a little intramural skirmishing…and how the impulse to blow our fucking fingers off with a firecracker can seem worth the bang that it makes in the moment.

You can maybe understand how the dirt on our side of the highway could nurture the only real brick-and-mortar Tea Party movement, in a state that’s been too often represented by horsefaced horsey-setters like Christie Whitman and her scolding clones. 

Let’s face it, though…even the old neighborhood, that close-to-last domino in the gentrification chain, hasn’t been immune to changes. The streets have all been paved by now; a new/improved bridge offers access to a modern marina and a busy county park; the town’s oldest house has re-opened to the public as a museum and nature center, and the (considerably cleaner) bay waters host recreational fisherfolk and frolicking kids. 

The seedy old mom ‘n pop businesses have long since been replaced by chain pharmacies; the dumps were long ago shut down, and even the DDT trucks decommissioned. Weirder yet, the former site of the Fish Factory is host now to luxury condos, located just seconds from a commuter ferry line to the financial district.

Sandy damage house PoMon

And make no mistake, the Wet Side took a big hit during Sandy…but for every velveeta-box bungalow that’s since been raised up to ridiculous altitudes, there are numerous lots whose houses have been razed to nothingness; their occupants opting never to return. The gas stations, markets, pizza places of the old neighborhood have faded away accordingly, with the quiet exodus of the old crowd.

So the Wetsider gets to feeling like some endangered marshland species; the one that doesn’t have an advocate in the halls of legislature or forums of public opinion…the unsuccessful, non-adapting organism that no one’s ever particularly going to miss. 

And without that advocate…or without any of our own number who are hard-working and ambitious enough to rise up to the task…we get told who it is we are, and what it is we want, by the ones who are too good to drink with us.

We get told that we represent a “trend” and a “movement,” when we’re just doing and saying the same as we’ve said and done for generations. 

We get told that we’re “outliers” and “revolutionaries” carrying the mob-mentality torch for a “Chaos Candidate,” when all’s we ever really wanted was for some Strongman to take care of all the details and hard work, so that we maybe wouldn’t have to drag ourselves out to the firehouse voting booth every couple of years.

We get told that we’re the Working Class; the still-proud people who want our good old American manufacturing jobs back…when in fact we Wetsiders never held those jobs in the first place. If and when we worked at all, we’d likely be found doing the jobs that “the people who do the jobs that Americans don’t want to do”…didn’t want to do. 

We get told that we’re passionate about Law and Order…when we’re much more likely to be that guy you’ve seen chased down and tackled on the lawn in an episode of “COPS.”

We get told that we’re “values voters” of an Evangelical bent, when in fact we haven’t been to church since they got that lady assistant pastor a while ago (well okay, we’ve been to funeral parlors, which are practically church, if church was run by used car dealers)…so we know deep down that all of it, the drugs and the drinking, the fighting and fornicating, the stealing and cheating, all of these trespasses are all forgiven in the end at the gate, which lets us do shit like rip the copper pipes out of our neighbor’s house in the here and now. 

We get told that our hearts beat for The Troops…when there’s actually damn precious few of us ever suited up for our country, least not since they did away with the draft. So you can see how old POWs and grieving moms aren’t going to rock our world either way.

We get likened to something called the “Appalachian Diaspora”…but about that all we can say is we’re getting a prescription from the Walk-In Medical on the highway.

We get told that we pine for the Good Old Days; that we bear some sort of wounded and nostalgia-choked sense of privilege…when everyone and his uncle knows we were never granted a place at the table even then. In fact, you might say that we’ve never been so empowered as we are right this very moment.

We get told lots of things about ourselves, by lots of cucks and/or quacks who refuse to accept that we DO kind of have a hard-on for Putin’s take-charge style; that we DO think the President is a Muslim who’s down with Rad Islam and that Kill/Bill Vol. 2 is indeed The Devil; that the Trump’s marital journey has produced a beautiful and gracious family; that armies of vaguely foreign rapists lurk waiting to compromise the virtue of our womenfolk; that we can tell you right now the whole damn election is rigged as shit; that we don’t give a feck about NATO, can’t name any of our state legislators, and have no idea what precisely the Supreme Court does; that we’re not particular interested in the difference between the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the GOP platform, those Two Guys from Corinthians, the TPP, or that thing we heard somebody say over at the Junction Liquors bar.

But maybe the part they get wronger than anything else…the bit that nobody but a born Wetsider would understand…is the part about how the Trump “speaks our language;” how He “says the things we’re thinking and have always wanted to say.” As if there ever was a time when we were shy about blurting ANYthing out loud. As if it wasn’t US who invented and perfected the fact-free, filter-free lifestyle.

As if it wasn’t HE who was the puppet, dancing to OUR dog whistle. Doing the bidding of the only guy whose head is bigger, whose sense of self-importance trumps Trump: the Wetsider.

You don’t think that we who have nothing…who ARE nothing…CAN’T have an all-consuming Ego larger even than the mighty Donald? Well, that makes YOU a racist…or a classist…or SOMEthing, I dunno. We’re looking into it.

The fact is that THIS is our One Thing…that thing that gets us flopping out of bed each morning; that defines how we see ourselves and how we interact (or not) with the world at large. It HAS to be that over-developed, our Ego does…else we shrivel and shrink to our actual size, and die.

Call it Wet Supremacy…Blah Lives Matter. If we don’t have somebody to hate on, troll on, look down on in turn, we cease to BE even sooner “before our time” than the third-world mortality rates that were a signifier in our community long before you read about them in the news…another thing that we perfected and gifted to America at large.

So we who don’t get to identify with much of “mass culture” these days are able to see ourselves, for once and maybe for the last time, in this successful businessman, this builder, this winner, this strongman, this patriot, this speaker of truth and agent of God.

Just this once, we get to crash the party; turn it upside down; break some shit, and take a shit on anything that we can’t break. 

Fuck “Morning in America”…it’s SATURDAY NIGHT and time to go a little nuts, lose ourselves in the mob, make like Sunday morning’s NEVER coming down.

(And Satire? That’s the thing that “closes on Saturday night.”)

What some call the “very worst of us” represents, for us, the optimal idealization of ourselves. We give Him our money, as we did with the TV preachers who built theme parks and custom-ordered private jets…’least THEY had something to show for it, more tangible than buying “air time.” His success is our success; we feed into it and it’s reflected back at us with a honey-nut glow. 

If anything, HE is the empty vessel; WE are the ones who transmit the signal and noise to the receiver, and we get it played back to us the way we like to hear it, and for that little while it makes us feel like we matter. 

We hear the music in the air while the rest of you waste so much time parsing His words; looking for any sort of sense or meaning or consistency there. We appreciate the point-and-shout, the sub-lingual signals, the random abuse…they remind us of home. And the contradictions, the backpedaling, the hypocrisy, the just-kiddings and the double-downs, all the things that everyone else finds so maddening, are the home cooking we’ve survived on our whole lives. We are HOME; we have home field advantage; we’re in the big game.


Not that we’re expecting to win — we never really DO, somehow; never really see things going our way even in those rare occasions when we managed to bet on the right horse. Hell, we’re not at all sure we’d know the first thing to do if we DID win the election, or the lottery, or the job, or the breaks. 

And do you really think we expect that we’ll EVER again be allowed to tilt the game board, affect an outcome, express ourselves in a way that upsets so many received wisdoms and fucks so with the system? We have it on good authority that it’s rigged in the first place, so why shouldn’t they go all the way and just rig it so’s we never pull the lever again?

And while you’ll never exactly “win” an argument with us, it never did take much to make us fold in a fight…to cause us to crawl beneath the bed and not come out, and not really want to be anyone at all. 

All you’d really have to do is yell and threaten and wave your arms around a little…it really IS all that we understand, and it’s not too far removed from how you’d keep a Canada goose from fouling your driveway. 

Shame us, defame us, slap us down at every sign of energy and organization. Don’t set a place for us at the table. Don’t even let a simple organic molecule coalesce from our crazy chemical soup. Shoo us away from taking the controls; separate us from our perceived reward like a rat looking at the cheese just beyond the glass wall of the maze. 

We’re willing to wager, though, that you’re probably too “decent” a person to do all that…and that your deep-down desire to treat us like adult human beings…to refuse to accept that Yes We CAN be THAT fucking hateful, and ignorant, and self-destructive…will forever be your weakness.

Do it anyway. Come at us with all the data; the cold equations at your disposal…but know that we’ve inhabited this parallel dimension for a long long time, and we’ve done it without your natural laws and immutable facts for as long back as anyone can recall. 

Or set us off against each other…never a hard thing to do…but know that, given half a chance, we’d revel in taking our house, your house, the whole shithouse down with us.     

Or co-opt us if you dare; piggyback on our moment for your own ends….but know that the stink of the Fish Factory is just as strong second-hand, and it don’t wash off. 

Or try, even, to show a little compassion for the Wetsider, if only out of some smug sense of superiority….but know that unless you’re feeling our level of heart-attack Hate and pants-shitting Paranoia, you can never truly know what it’s like to BE us.

Just whatever you do, please DON’T move to take this one brief moment, this One Thing, away from us. It’s all that we’ve got.


Your Blues COLORA familiar face on the Two River Theater stage, Brandon J. Dirden (right) returns as a first-time director, with a production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS that opens the new Two River season this weekend. 

Last time the Drama Desk looked in on Brandon J. Dirden, the actor was preparing for his starring turn in the Two River Theater world premiere of writer-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine; a project that capped a busy year on the Broadway stage (where he won acclaim as Martin Luther King Jr. in the Tony winning All The Way), the TV screen (a recurring role as Agent Aderholt in the FX series The Americans), and — with wife and frequent co-star Crystal A. Dickinson — the ongoing adventure of new parenthood.

When the native Texan helps Two River Theater Company inaugurate its new season this Saturday, September 12, it will be without Santiago-Hudson, the collaborator who previously directed him in the August Wilson plays Jitney (in Red Bank) and a 2012 production of The Piano Lesson that earned the actor an Obie award. It will, however, be in the spiritual company of the late great African American playwright, whose ten-play “Century Cycle” receives continued exploration by TRTC, with a limited engagement of Seven Guitars that runs through October 4 — and that represents Brandon J. Dirden’s first foray as director. Continue reading


NG1 COLOR(L-R): Layla Khoshnoudi, Jacob A. Ware, Judith Hawking and Gregory Haney star in “Nobody’s Girl,” the dark comedy that makes its American debut this weekend at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch.   Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS

It takes place in a world pretty much like our own; one where a shocking account of the most unspeakable sexual scandal hijacks the 24-7 news cycle — and where the whole thing threatens to come crashing down, when the “victim” in the story departs from the standard script.

If playwright Rick Viede has learned one thing in the three years since moving to the U.S. from his native Australia, it’s that America’s celebrity-obsessed, conflict-crazed media culture is even more “ridiculous” and “feral” than the one he left behind — no mean feat for the land that gave us Rupert Murdoch. The realization that “the temptation is always there to twist the volume way up” inspired Viede to revisit his play “Nobody’s Girl;” a “dark comedy” that makes its Stateside premiere this weekend at the Jersey Shore’s edgy-play incubator, New Jersey Repertory Company.

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closure23Gary Cole plays one-man Good Cop/ Bad Cop with Biniam Tekola in CLOSURE, the steamy tropic-set noir drama now in its premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company.

Summertime is noir time — a fact borne out by the programmers of Turner Classic Movies, and by the crime-thriller authors who rush to ready their latest page-flippers for beach-blanket consumption. There are many more of us for whom the seemingly celebratory season of sun and surf instead conjures thoughts of temperatures-rising passions “touched by fire;” of lost hours spent disappearing into the crowd and cacophony of a blackout night-before…and of the harsh morning-after light that hammers its way past the dusty venetian-blind barricades of a small and stifling room.

Here in what’s normally a season of rest for new dramatic productions in the region, New Jersey Repertory Company has stepped up with a slowly simmering noir scenario that’s in sync with the coastal currents, cocktail-fueled confessions and sudden storms of a Jersey Shore July — one that jettisons the signature concrete settings of the naked city for the patio furniture, potted palms, pastels and deceptively laid-back pacing of a small (and not terribly specific) Caribbean resort island.

Written by Richard Dresser (Rounding Third) and tautly directed by Joe Cacaci of of LA’s legendary Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble, the regional premiere Closure makes for a tense but tight fit with the similarly claustrophobic confines of the Long Branch playhouse’s shadow-box stage. Its quartet of characters — the parents of a college-age young woman who’s gone missing; the American expatriate police detective charged with investigating the disappearance; a “person of interest” hotel worker — are castaways in a curiously depopulated place that offers little room for hiding, and no apparent options for escape from the personal demons that cruise like sharks in the unseen waters beyond. Too caught up in the lethally languid spell of this oppressive “paradise” to do what they know to be the right thing, they make another excuse, put another drink on the tab — and help turn what could have been a turgid potboiler into a darkly compelling piece of theater.

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KhadijahMohammedCOLORIn-demand singer, songwriter and proud Asbury Parker Khadijah Mohammed teams with brother Talib at the front of The F.L.O.W. Show, the musical force that’s seducing new fans through a monthly residency at The Saint. (Photo by King Joseph Photography)

(Expanded from article originally published in the Asbury Park Press on June 19, 2015)

She’s performed at Giants Stadium with P. Diddy; sang before a London audience of 100,000 people with Lenny Kravitz; toured internationally with Dave Matthews, and shared a recording booth with Cissy Houston at the invitation of Luther Vandross. But even if Khadijah Mohammed has spent much of the past 25 years as a sought-after backup singer for some of the biggest arena-scale acts in the business, there’s no venue as important as anywhere she performs in any given moment…no song more exciting than the original music that she’s now sharing with the world…and no place like Asbury Park, the music-mad city where she and younger brother Talib grew up and eventually assembled the band known as The F.L.O.W. Show.

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Will Connolly (center) and the cast of BE MORE CHILL carry the energetic world premiere musical beyond the school year, as Two River Theater extends the originally announced engagement through June 28. (photo by T.C. Erickson)

(Originally published on RedBankGreen.com June 18, 2015)

The academic year may be ending right about now (if not sooner) for most high schools — but for the cast of the school-set musical Be More Chill, Graduation Day has been delayed another week.

The Two River Theater Company team announced recently that the amped-up, sci-fi infused, satirical tunefest — a production originally scheduled to ring down the curtain after June 21 — has been ordered to “stay after school” by popular demand, with a round of five additional performances between June 25 and 28.

If you haven’t caught this talent-packed, ready-for-primetime piece of work —the third consecutive world premiere in a season of surprises at Two River — you may be missing out on a darkly comic and brightly energetic offering; one that closes out the current TRTC schedule on a “high” note in more ways than one.

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Emily Linder vert COLORClockwise from top left: Marnie Andrews, Dana Benningfield, Corey Tazmania and Jenny Vallancourt star in in THE REALIZATION OF EMILY LINDER, the play by Richard Butler making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory on April 25.

The first time that Richard Strand had one of his scripts produced at New Jersey Repertory Company, it was a Kafka-esque comedy by the name of Ten Percent of Molly Snyder — a nutty nightmare in which a young woman’s very identity threatens to vanish in a vortex of clerical errors and berserk bureaucracy.

Here in 2015, Strand is represented in Long Branch once again with The Realization of Emily Linder — a world premiere work in which a middle-aged woman gathers her daughters together to inform them that she has determined the exact date and time of her death.

If both of those scenarios seem like they wouldn’t be out of place on Rod Serling’s vintage Twilight Zone, the California-based playwright doesn’t consider that an insult — going so far as to cite Serling as one of his primary writerly influences.

“I didn’t see a lot of plays back when I was ten years old,” offers the author of numerous published plays, dating back some four decades. “It became clear early on, that there was some good writing and storytelling to be found on TV.”

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