ARCHIVE: Readings from Li’l Broadway

(First published on Red Bank oRBit September 22, 2008)

There was that time that Stephen Colbert took a break from his breakout TV show — to perform a dramatic turn as a Nazi bureaucrat of obscure motives and opaque sympathies.

Another memorable evening occurred when veteran actress and broadcast personality Betsy Palmer — a woman who will always be pegged as Jason’s murderous momma in the first Friday the 13th movie — took a co-starring role in Dix Tableaux, a play that was as warmly funny as it was impossible to produce, seeing as to how they would have had to suspend an entire convertible from the ceiling to fulfill the playwright’s vision.

Things like props, scenery, costumes and even rehearsal schedules don’t matter too much when it comes to New Jersey Repertory Company‘s long-running series of script-in-hand readings at its downtown Long Branch playhouse. All that’s needed are some copies of the script and maybe a narrator to read the stage directions and let the audience know that the characters are supposed to be sitting in a convertible suspended from the ceiling.

It’s an offering that’s brought an ingeniously economical perspective to the whole process of putting on a show — and it’s a series that continues tonight on lower Broadway with a little something called The People’s Pimple.

NJ Rep’s readings are a good deal for a whole lot of reasons. First off, they’re way cheaper than a fully-staged show — available for a suggested donation (generally $10), although reservations are required. Second, they start at 7pm and don’t keep you out late on a school night (post-show Q&A sessions are often intriguing but never mandatory). And third, you just never know what you’re going to see — it’s unpredictable enough for greatness to be in the cards, far more often than you may think.

A lot of fine actors have passed through these one-shot productions, including many from what’s become the stock company of players at the Long Branch stage. Such grand dames as Salome JensKatharine Houghton and the late Kim Hunter have used these nights as a springboard for a challenging new project. They’ve also drawn the participation of well-known performers who are itching to break out of their pigeonhole roles, be they John(Gomez Addams) AstinLinda (Sarah Connor) Hamilton or Brian (Dante Hicks) O’Halloran, who’s displayed a range here that was just hinted at in his famous projects with Kevin Smith.

Most of all, it’s the fact that this feature has functioned as something like a “farm club” for new plays that makes it so much of a must. Out of nearly 250 readings that have been performed here over the past ten years, almost 40 of them have gone on to become fully finished mainstage shows at NJ Rep — from the company’s maiden show Ends, to the forthcoming production Apple, the seeds for which were first planted here with a reading back in 2003.

That sort of a gestation process isn’t all that unusual, as it turns out. As NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas has explained, “The main purpose of the staged readings is to let the author see where there may be vulnerabilities in a play, and what the audience responds to or does not respond to.

“It also gives us the chance to feel out the playwright and see how easy or difficult he or she is to work with, and how eager they are to further refine their play.”

With the Actors Equity stage union allowing up to 15 hours for rehearsals for these things, there are generally only two rehearsals of the material — one in New York, and one at NJRep the day of the performance.

That keeps things interesting and, shall we say, spontaneous in places — with the audience very much a part of the development process, to the extent that Barabas admits to having presented “plays that the audience did not especially like… the playwrights would do well to listen to their comments and to heed their suggestions.”