A DREAM CAST, A NIGHTMARE SCENARIO, A SLOW-SIMMERING NOIR AT NJ REP

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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EMILY’S LIST: FUN WITH FATE ‘N FAMILY AT NJ REP

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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SWEET ‘BLUES’ ON RED BANK’S UPPER WEST SIDE

BrandonJDirdenBroadway and TV actor Brandon J. Dirden returns to Red Bank as star of YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE, the drama by Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson that begins its world premiere engagement this weekend.

It’s been quite a year-and-change for Brandon J. Dirden, the Obie award winner whose previous projects for Two River Theater Company include August Wilson’s Jitney, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, in which he starred alongside his brother Jason. The 35-year old actor made a big impression on Broadway — as Dr. Martin Luther King, no less (and alongside Bryan Cranston’s LBJ) — in the Tony-winning smash All The Way. A role on the FX series The Americans found him becoming a regular presence as FBI Agent Aderholt — and somewhere along that timeline, he and his wife, actress Crystal Anne Dickinson, became the parents of a baby boy.

When Brandon Dirden returns to Red Bank this weekend, he’ll be reuniting with his Jitney director — Tony winning actor (and August Wilson authority) Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also steered Dirden to that Obie in a 2012 production of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. The vehicle for their collaboration this time is Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine — an original script by Santiago-Hudson that stands as the second of three shows making their world premiere on Bridge Avenue this spring.

Merritt Janson co-stars as Judith, a well-to-do Manhattanite whose encounter with homeless-shelter staffer Zeke (Dirden) sparks an Upper West Side dinner party invitation that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.” Andrew Hovelson, Roslyn Ruff and Charles Weldon complete the cast, and your upperWETside Control Voice caught up with Brandon J. Dirden as Your Blues prepped for its first preview this Saturday, April 11.

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A SONICS RENDEZVOUS IN ASBURY TOWN

Sonics_2_by_Merri_SuttonThey were covered by Bruce; coveted by Little Steven — and for the first time in nearly 50 years, the legendary band of 1960s Northwest stompers THE SONICS hits the East Coast for a tour that takes them to NYC’s Irving Plaza (April 8) and Asbury Park’s Stone Pony (April 9). (photo by Merri Sutton)

“Strychnine.” “Psycho.” “He’s Waiting.” “The Witch.” You won’t find a one of these stomping, screaming Sixties seethers in your directory of Billboard chart-toppers, but if you hail from any of the generations of proto/post-punks and detached-garage revivalists who made them gospel chapter ‘n verse — or if you’re, say, Bruce Springsteen, who made “Have Love Will Travel” a centerpiece of his 1988 tour — The Sonics are pure pantheon.

Blasting their way out of Tacoma’s working-class/ working-band scene in the early half of the 1960s, the fivesome fronted by soul-soaked shouter and organist Jerry Roslie — and fortified by brothers Larry and Andy Parypas on guitar and bass; Bob Bennett on bash, and supersonic secret weapon Rob Lind on honking, gargling, quackety sax — delivered a take-no-prisoners brand of band-battle rock ‘n soul that was born and bred in unglamorous three-sets-a-night reality. It was also preserved for posterity on a pair of sought-after long players, Here Are the Sonics and Boom — albums that encapsulated their raw-power mix of originals and hard-earned bar band essentials like “Louie Louie,” “Money,” “Do You Love Me,” and even “Since I Fell for You,” the slow-dance blockbuster best known from Asbury Park’s Lenny Welch.

The Sonics went their separate ways by 1967, completely skirting that whole Summer of Love/ Woodstock thing — but fast forwarding to the strange new world of 2015, we find the septuagenarian core of the band (Jerry, Larry and Rob) — reinforced by Kingsmen bassist Freddie Dennis and Agent Orange drummer Dusty Watson — back in business with a tour that takes them back east big-time, with dates at NYC’s Irving Plaza (April 8) and Asbury’s Stone Pony (April 9).

It’s an incredible journey that began with a popular-demand reunion gig in 2007; led to a first-ever Euro-tour the next year, and culminated in the self-release of This is the Sonics, a relentlessly rocking self-release (on Revox USA) that mixes originals like advance track “Bad Betty” and the screamer “Livin’ in Chaos” with caterwauling classics from the likes of Hank Ballard, Willie Dixon, Ray Davies and Ray Charles; all “recorded in earth-shaking Mono” by producer Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Dirtbombs). Make no mistake: The Sonics have been summoned back into being to “Save the Planet” (“it’s the only one with beer!”).

Your upperWETside Control Voice rang up Rob Lind on the eve of the album drop marked with a big Seattle show that paired the boys with their spiritual progeny in Mudhoney. Flip that record over for more…

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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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