Originally published on Red Bank Green on June 6, 2008
By TOM CHESEK
Chicago has the profanely profound David Mamet; Pittsburgh the late great August Wilson. New York? Well, at least as the rest of the country sees it, there’s no playwright more attuned to Manhattan than the beloved Neil “Doc” Simon.
Here in the great metropolis that is Monmouth County, the boards of our local stages are getting Simonized in style by our own comical Bard of the Bayshore, a scribe who was once branded by a correspondent for the Asbury Park Press (not me) as the Next Neil Simon.
Digging around in the basement of the First Avenue Playhouse for a stray prop or suitable stick of furniture, Joe Simonelli doesn’t come across as a self-important peer of Mamet or Albee or, for that matter, even Dan “Nunsense” Goggin. While none of those gentlemen of letters would rightly be expected to decorate their own sets, the regular-joe Simonelli can often be spotted around the Atlantic Highlands dessert theatre doing whatever needs to be done painting flats, providing musical accompaniment, even serving coffee to faithful patrons.
This summer, lucky local audiences will get a chance to catch two offerings from the Simonelli playbook, beginning with Roommates, a comedy of relationships that kicks off a month-long engagement at First Avenue this Friday, with the author himself in the lead.
Make no mistake, this longtime area resident (a former Rumsonite and financial-industry veteran who currently makes his home in “an undisclosed location” near First Avenue) is a playwright first and foremost a published and produced playwright who’s serious about the wacky works that bear his byline. He’s showcased his comedies in off-Broadway productions; seen his plays performed by troupes in other states, and had three of them published in book form (his Heaven Help Me will soon be in print from the prestigious Samuel French imprint).
Originally produced in 2001, Roommates was Simonelli’s second staged work (following The Next Time Around, a musical that has since been withdrawn from public display by its creator) and the first in a string of comedies to have all made their debut at First Avenue. Since 2000, the busy downtown playhouse established by Joe Bagnole and Donna Jeanne (fans of Kevin Smith’s Clerks know them as Cat Shit Watching Customerand Indecisive Video Customer respectively) has acted as incubator for such Simonelli projects as Stocks and Blondes, Ladies in Lingerie and the musical Romance Dot Com shows which, as the titles suggest, make up in stock-company zaniness what they may not possess in Noel Cowardsavoir faire.
In Roommates, Simonelli plays Frank, a fortysomething divorcee whose single-guy style is cramped by the sudden appearance of his friend Tom (Peter Antico), whose “temporary” stay at Frank’s pad (after being tossed from his girlfriend’s place) turns into an extended nightmare of farcical complications and ulterior motives. Lynn Cefalo and Grace Emley co-star.
According to Simonelli, it’s a newly “tightened” version of the seven-year old show that’s on display in Atlantic Highlands; a show in which, for instance, a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em has been substituted for that old sitcom staple, the bridge game.
“The beauty of working here is that I get to work things out, tighten things up,” says Simonelli of his First Avenue lab. “What’s especially nice is that we’re close to the city. It’s a sophisticated audience, a good cross-section of people.”
Simonelli returns to the First Avenue fold in August as director, with a revival of what has proven to be his most popular comedy, the 2003 Men Are Dogs. Centered around a female psychologist’s group therapy sessions for single and divorced women, it’s the basis for some sharply etched characters and a bit of comically literalized male-bashing.
“I think Men is perfect for community theater, in that it features a mostly female cast,” explains the author in reference to the gender imbalance found at most auditions.
As Simonelli tells it, the concept tested well when a random sampling of female passersby revealed that the majority would “definitely be interested” in seeing a show called Men Are Dogs.
“It’s a money show because of the title,” he adds. “The title gets them in the door, but the play does stand up. You’ve gotta make your mark with one play, and this is a flagship show for me.”
Although Simonelli recalls his “first major thrill” as “when the audience laughed at the first joke in my first show,” the comedy specialist is clear about this intention to develop a pair of more serious works in the near future. One of them, With This Ring, follows a wedding band through four generations of family history while Wretched Asylum is a two-character study of a “dysfunctional, sexually addicted couple” that’s deemed “too intense for the dessert crowd.”