An intimate premiere hits the “Spot” at NJ Rep

M Spot 3(COLOR)Pheonyx Vaughn is a massage therapist summoned to the rescue of long-married couple Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker in THE M SPOT, Tucker’s original play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

Long ago and far away, on a broadcast-network landscape far removed from Netflix, Showtime and HBO, the characters of L.A. Law mined comic gold from an unspecified, life-changing boudoir maneuver known as “the Venus Butterfly.” Here in 2015, on the stage of New Jersey Repertory, a pair of L.A. Law castmates have gone far beyond the Butterfly with “The M Spot,” the unorthodox and frankly refreshing play now in its world premiere run.

Written by actor and author Michael Tucker — and pairing Tucker with Jill Eikenberry, his longtime partner in life, love, series television, book tours and the olive oil business — this study of a marriage at the crossroads (and an unexpected detour that marks the way home) could perhaps only have been successfully realized by the veteran couple known as The Tuckerberrys. It almost certainly could never have been brought before area audiences by anyone other than the Long Branch-based NJ Rep company.

Directed by Rep regular Evan Bergman — whose past credits include the ensemble piece “Jericho,” a New York production of which co-starred Eikenberry — The M Spot casts the two performers (best known as L.A. Law associates Ann and Stuart) as Maddie and Jerry, a long-running partnership whose diminishing sex life and diverging interests have left them “becoming each other’s mothers.” In the play’s first act, claustrophobically confined to an edge of the tiny Rep stage, the audience is invited ready-or-not to listen in, as the couple scroll through a litany of complaints, confessions, and conflicting accounts of trivial (but pivotal) incidents from a decades-long relationship that began as a thrilling extramarital affair.

Addressing the audience one by one — in a manner not unlike how TV lawyers stand up and argue their cases — the middle-aged marrieds harp on each other’s annoying habits (her overuse of “I know;” his refusal to give up smoking pot), lament the betrayal of their own bodies (her recurrence of breast cancer; his inexplicable rash), and can’t help but summon up the ghosts of their parents (her dad, his mom) on their way to grappling with the nature of truth (“an aphrodisiac,” as Maddie sees it).

It’s a session that’s colored — the stars’ assurances to the contrary — by the publicly private experiences of Eikenberry and Tucker (there’s even a sly plug for his novel After Annie). It’s also an entertaining interlude, in the way that something like Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild can be when done properly — but it’s not really The M Spot, and observers who sense that there’s much more to be discovered on the other side of that wall are proven correct in the play’s second half.

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A ONE AND FUTURE CLASSIC, AT TWO RIVER

David Lee HRHFRASIER co-creator David Lee (left) returns to Red Bank to direct a young cast of pros (including Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, right) in the Two River Theater Company production of CAMELOT.  Originally published on RedBankGreen.com, November 14, 2014 Even as Red Bank’s own Phoenix Productions offers up a supremely silly take on the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table — courtesy of Monty Python’s Spamalot — the professionals at Two River Theater are getting serious about “The Once and Future King,”   beginning with Saturday’s first preview performance of Camelot. The 1960 golden-age musical from the songwriting team of Lerner and Loewe — a Broadway costume classic that originally starred Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Roddy McDowall and Robert Goulet — is already an unorthodox choice for the Two River team led by John Dias and Michael Hurst. But a closer look reveals a production that loses the brooding middle-aged actors in favor of a dynamic young ensemble of just eight players — even as it preserves the award winning score that gave the world “How to Handle a Woman” and “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Directing the show that opens on Friday, November 21 and runs through December 14 is David Lee, the Emmy winning sitcom impresario (Frasier, Wings) whose previous Two River outing was the celebrated Present Laughter from two seasons back (he also re-teamed with some of the original Frasier cast for a fundraiser presentation on the Red Bank stage). He’s working with an awesomely experienced cast that includes Oliver Thornton, a young veteran of London’s West End (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Rent) who’s making his American stage debut as Arthur — plus Nicholas Rodriguez (Disney’s Tarzan) as Lancelot, and (as the man-you-love-to-hate Mordred) Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who shared the Broadway stage with Angela Lansbury and Elaine Stritch in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Tony nominee Steve Orich (Jersey Boys) directs a live ensemble of seven musicians. Your upperWETside Control Voice spoke to David Lee about the pros and cons of parades, pageantry and pointy hats. Read on… Continue reading

NOW YOU HAS CHAZZ: BRINGING ‘BRONX’ BACK 2 THE BASIE

Chazz(horiz)COLORChazz Palminteri brings his solo stage play A BRONX TALE back to the Count Basie Theatre, for a two-night stand .

Originally published on RedBankGreen, 6/24/14

In the 1993 film A Bronx Tale, Robert De Niro directed a hitherto little-known actor, screenwriter and former Hollywood bouncer named Chazz Palminteri, in the Bronx native’s own semi-autobiographical script about a teenager named Calogero and the two father figures in his life — his morally upright bus driver dad, and a neighborhood mob boss named Sonny, who takes the young man under his wing in the racially charged powderkeg of 1960s NYC.

The actor born Calogero Palminteri would go on to a busy career in the moving pictures, highlighted by cult favorite The Usual Suspects and an Academy Award nomination for Bullets Over Broadway — but not all of his newfound fans realized that Bronx began life as a one-man stage play; custom crafted by the struggling thespian, who performed it numerous times in his adopted city of L.A. before industry word-of-mouth carried it all the way to Broadway. In between screen projects (and side projects like Chazz: A Bronx Original, the Baltimore restaurant he opened in 2011), Palminteri has continued to bring the original solo stage version of A Bronx Tale to live audiences — and this Thursday and Friday, June 26 and 27, he returns to the Count Basie Theatre for a two-nighter followup to his well received Red Bank engagement of last year.

Your upperWETside Control Voice spoke to the actor, writer, producer and restaurateur about projects old, new and perhaps never to be — with a Q&A around the corner.

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GO, GO ANNETTE: A ‘THIRD’ METRIC FOR SUCCESS

ThirdOscar and Emmy nominee Annette O’Toole stars in Wendy Wasserstein’s THIRD, continuing through June 22 at Two River Theater.

Originally published on RedBankGreen, 6/20/14

Wednesday marks the final homestretch of performances for Third, the Wendy Wasserstein play that closes out the 20th anniversary season at Two River Theater. For anyone who hasn’t caught the production under the direction of Broadway star and Middletown resident Michael Cumpsty, there are six more chances to catch the acclaimed and dynamic turn by Annette O’Toole now through Sunday, June 22. The Emmy nominated actress (for The Kennedys of Massachusetts, which also featured Cumpsty in a supporting role) and Oscar nominated composer (with her husband Michael McKean, currently on Broadway with Bryan Cranston in All the Way) stars as a middle-aged maverick professor at a Liberal Arts college, whose own bold ideas about Shakespeare’s King Lear are challenged by a young male student (Christopher Sears) who comes to represent everything the academic despises. Emily Walton, JR Horne and Amy Hohn co-star as the friends and family members in the professor’s eventful orbit.

Your upperWETside Control Voice spoke to Annette O’Toole about her role (and her time in Red Bank), with a Q&A around the corner.

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COMICS CREATORS FIND SUPERPOWERS IN BUSINESS ALTER EGOS

cliff Rob_wall Originally published on TheStreet.com May 11, 2014

To hear Cliff Galbraith tell it, he might just be the only guy ever to conceal a business text behind a comic book — an act that turns a time-worn cliche on its ear, even as it reinforces the fact that the New Jersey based comics creator keeps up with the latest titles by Gladwell and Ben Horowitz “like they were Game of Thrones.”

With two self-published Crucial Comics titles in circulation, and lordship over a pair of buzz-generating commercial websites, Galbraith could already be said to have enough on his drawing board. But it’s his newly minted status as co-founder of a growing empire of ComiCon events that’s got the veteran cartoonist hitting the books over such topics as subcontracted security, guest accommodations, and the sweet science of customer service.

Cliff and his partner in the Con game — fellow Red Bank, NJ resident and “popculturist” authority Rob Bruce — recently wrapped a successful fourth edition of their Asbury Park ComiCon, a “relatively small” two-day extravaganza that drew some sought-after star talent and thousands of fans to the salty Jersey Shore resort. Just weeks from now, they’ll be doing it all again, during a first-ever New York Comic Fest that commandeers the Westchester County Center in White Plains, NY for a single Saturday on June 14.

Sponsored by the pair’s online outlets 13th Dimension and  Monsters and Robots, the spring 2014 events represent a quantum leap forward from the “microscopic” bowling-alley origins of the first Asbury Park gatherings. At the same time, they remain manageably scaled affairs designed to “promote the people who create comics,” in an age when the major conventions have been effectively hijacked by the entertainment conglomerates behind the top titles, publishers and properties.

 

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LEE BLESSING’S NEWEST IS A DOOM WITH A ‘VIEW’

View15Mountain Madness: John Little, Katrina Ferguson, Eva Kaminsky and Michael Zlabinger star in New Jersey Repertory’s world premiere of A VIEW OF THE MOUNTAINS, Lee Blessing’s follow-up to his Pulitzer nominated A WALK IN THE WOODS.  (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

Back in 1988 — at the tail end of a Cold War that proved pretty fertile fodder for highbrow drama and low-blow satire alike — a playwright by name of Lee Blessing crafted a two-hander that wore its message of human engagement on its sleeve, and took it all the way to Broadway.

A nominee for both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize — and adapted to TV with its stage cast intact — A Walk in the Woods placed a passionately principled young American arms negotiator named John Honeyman (Sam Waterston), and a wry and worldly old Soviet named Andrey Botvinnik (Robert Prosky), in a neutral-ground setting far from the brinksmanship and blustering of the conference room.

Here in 2014, John Honeyman lives again; not as a John Le Carre sort of weary warrior called back in from the cold, but as the man-out-of-time figure at the center of A View of the Mountains, a follow-up (of sorts) to Woods — as well as a scenario that trades the 20th century arms race for its millennial equivalent (the weapons-grade rhetoric of the amped-up, ramped-up “national debate”), and the sardonic Soviet for a more homegrown antagonist: Honeyman’s Republican son from his first marriage.

As seen in a world premiere engagement currently on display at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — where previously produced Blessing scripts have included Eleemosynary and WhoresMountains finds the Honeyman character (John Little, adding another role to his gallery of patriarchs in crisis) living with his heiress second wife (Katrina Ferguson) and a teenage son named for the play’s Andrey character (Jon Erik Nielsen platooning with Jared Rush), in an upstate New York retreat framed as a sparsely appointed and highly stylized simulacrum of the real world.

He’s also contending with a conflict that goes beyond mere daddy-issue angst: estranged son Will (Michael Zlabinger) is now a United States Senator who’s been short-listed for the running mate slot in the next presidential election — a resolutely right-wing rising star whose entire career is based on a complete refutation of the father who neglected his original family way back when. Under the direction of Evan Bergman (Saving Kitty, Jericho), things really come to a head when the veteran negotiator turns blackmailer; threatening to rattle a long-fogotten skeleton in the junior Senator’s closet unless he does nothing less than withdraw completely from public life.

Put aside any thoughts of the father-son thing being at the heart of this one-act piece, however — the play packs a thermonuclear punch in the person of Gwynn (Eva Kaminsky), the young pol’s campaign manager wife, and a stridently one-stop generator of negative energy who scans for listening devices, tests food and drinks for poison, threatens to beat and tie up the other characters, treats even her husband with contempt and basically makes the darkly ambitious Lady Macbeth look like dear Little Nell. Blessing writes here with needle-sharp pen and the most slash ‘n burn sort of character dynamics — and Kaminsky takes ownership of the proceedings with a love-to-hate performance that matches the author’s anything-but-subtle style.

The playwright, who made the opening-weekend trip from his California home to downtown Long Branch (on a particularly grim week marked by a leaper’s suicide from the neighborhood’s 500-foot radio tower), spoke to your upperWETside Control Voice prior to the first preview.

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JACOB LANDAU: A FINE ARTIST’S CAP (AND KIRBY) CONNECTION

Sniper

The forgotten Quality Comics hero THE SNIPER stands as a Golden Age feather in the cap of Jacob “Jay” Landau, in the decades before he became a noted educator, illustrator and fine art printmaker. A retrospective of Landau’s war-themed work is on display at NJ’s Monmouth University, April 10 through 24.

Originally published on 13th Dimension, April 6, 2014

It rushes at you like a chaos of riderless horses. Lunges for your gut with fixed bayonet.  Flails a desperately groping hand that causes you to shrink back a step, even as you wonder if there’s anything you can do to ease the epic anguish of the twisted figures before you.  

When encountered for the first time, the lithographs, woodcuts and drawings of the late artist Jacob Landau can be a jarring thing to behold — a stark and elegant/ugly plane of Holocaust tableaux; visions of Dante’s circles of Hell and the insomniac fables of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Scenes of displacement and despair that nonetheless pulse with the faint heartbeat of a stoic humanism — turning proud General Lee to a somber shadow, and Mark Twain to Edgar Allan Poe.

The artist’s passionately held, lifelong anti-war beliefs course through A Judgment of War: Selected Works by Jacob Landau, a retrospective exhibit of works hosted in the seminar room of the Monmouth University library, and opening with a 4:30 pm reception on Thursday, April 10. Curated by MU’s Scott Knauer and Susan Douglass, the installation covers several of the works that Landau (1917-2001), a longtime resident of the Monmouth County, NJ artist community in Roosevelt, is noted for among fine art experts. It also folds in some previously little-explored corners of the artist’s early career — from his stint as art director and editor of wartime military magazines, to the Hitler-punching exploits of America’s most super of soldiers, Captain America.

Young Landau’s involvement, in the creator-run shop overseen by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for the first ten issues of Cap’s title, is among the topics that will be discussed (along with The Sniper, a rifle-toting Robin Hood appearing in Military Comics, the Quality title that introduced Blackhawk to the world) by Steven Brower, the award winning designer, author and former creative director of PRINT magazine. Brower — who wrote this vanguard study of Landau’s comix connection, and whose other writings on the topic have included this illuminating piece on Kirby’s photocollage background experiments, and this fond farewell interview with the great Joe Kubert — comes to Monmouth’s West Long Branch, NJ campus on April 17 for a first-ever talk about Jacob Landau’s mystery-shrouded career as a superhero comic book artist.

Your upperWETside Control Voice spoke to Steven Brower on Landau’s brief but fondly recalled romance with the comics business, and the ways in which sequential storytelling continued to impact the artist’s later work (and perhaps, vice versa).

CRENSHAW BY THE ‘SHAW,’ AS SONGWRITERS RETURNS TO MU

MarshallCrenshawMarshall Crenshaw joins a couple of Jersey Joes, a David Jo’ and MO’ in a new edition of Songwriters by the Sea, March 29 at Monmouth University.

Originally published on Speak Into My Good Eye, 3/24/14

With a pro music career that goes back more than 30 years — a career keynoted by a stint as John Lennon in the touring company of Beatlemania, and further bookmarked by his portrayal of Buddy Holly in the movie La Bamba — Marshall Crenshaw has assembled the kind of catalog that most singer-songwriters would give the right side of their brain for (“Someday Someway,” “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time”); attracting interpreters that range from Ronnie Spector to Bette Midler, and writing or co-writing standout stuff for the Gin Blossoms (“Til I Hear It From You”) and the one and only John C. Reilly (“Walk Hard”). The Detroit native has done it all with a relaxed and unpretentious delivery, an understated (and underrated) rock guitar style, a self-effacing sense of humor and a fairly awesome passion for pop music — a set of skills that he’ll be bringing to the stage of the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University this Saturday, March 29.

The latest in a series of Songwriters by the Sea events hosted by Jersey scene veterans Joe D’Urso and Joe Rapolla, the 8 p.m. concert marks another Shore encore for the guy who recorded a live DVD at The Stone Pony in 2003, who played a memorably intimate show at a neighborhood church in Atlantic Highlands a few years back, and who chose to record his contribution to the La Bamba soundtrack at a downtown Long Branch studio. It’s a natural forum for an artist whose spontaneous ear for a fun cover song (MC5! Jo Stafford! Left Banke! ABBA!), ability to rethink a familiar catalog favorite, and seemingly effortless flair for new and perfect pop songs are very much in evidence on a new series of subscription-only vinyl EPs, merched from his official website.

Crenshaw’s also found another outlet for his encyclopaedic mastery of popular music in The Bottomless Pit, the radio program he’s hosted on WFUV out of New York — a sideline gig that he shares in common with his contemporary and co-star in the March 29 Songwriters session: David Johansen, curator and caretaker of The Mansion of Fun on Sirius XM Radio. From his supercharged takes on Sonny Boy Williamson and Archie Bell during his Doll’d-up days as a proto-punk godfather, to his folk-blues field excursions into Memphis Minnie and more with The Harry Smiths, and his retro-rocketing career trajectory as alter ego Buster Poindexter (an act that he’s returned to with some highly regarded small-combo sets at NYC’s Cafe Carlyle), David Jo has always been the man with the song for every occasion. His 1980s sets at such long-gone Central Jersey joints as the Fast Lane, Royal Manor and Fountain Casino reinforced his acumen as a natural entertainer, and cut his anthemic guitar-driven originals like “Funky But Chic” and “Personality Crisis” with raucous and exhilarating whirls with oldies from The Animals, The Foundations and The Four Tops. A frequent “Evening With” attraction at the Brighton Bar and other regional rooms, the Staten Island stalwart makes an encore trip to the Songwriters circle in the company of his longtime guitarist Brian Koonin.

The two Joes and their two 60-something guests will be joined by a third singer-songwriter who’s been known to play very well with others: Allison Moorer, the NY-based alt-country vocalist whose classic voice is fortified by her covertune acumen (Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” among others), collaborations (everyone from Buddy Miller to Kid Rock), credentials (both an Oscar and a Grammy nom), and familial connections (she’s the wife of Steve Earle, and the sister of Shelby Lynne). The 8 p.m. program is rounded out by three homegrown talents from Monmouth U — Bryan Haring, Erin Holmes and Natalie Zeller. Your upperWETside Control Voice rang up Marshall Crenshaw to talk about casual concerts, covertune conundrums, and corporate cubbyholes.

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