It was very nearly six years ago that New Jersey Repertory Company — the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage — hosted the world premiere of a “gritty, blues infused fairytale” called Tilt Angel.
A nightmarishly surreal, absurdist Southern gothic about a socially reclusive young man, his neglectful father, his pining for his lost mother (who somehow manages to get reincarnated as a large house plant) and a divine intervention in the form of a tattered, filthy seraph, the Dan Deitz play offered up such jarring imagery and literalized phobias as a giant black telephone, a home-crafted prosthetic claw, travel by telephone lines and an evil “garden” of seething tubes from which a big skeletal hand emerges to drag our hero to his fate.
Of course we couldn’t rave enough about the show — still one of the most amazing things we’ve seen on local stages in our years as a professional theater critic — to anyone who wouldn’t cross to the other side of the street when we approached. But, as NJ Rep executive producer Gabe Barabas noted with a wry chuckle years later, this Angel laid a big old deviled egg at the box office as nothing before or since. Like, TILT, game over.
We only dredge up these painful memories because the production, in its own way, served to plant the seed for Donna Orbits the Moon, a show that enters its world premiere engagement this week as the latest in the “neverending season” of original entertainments at the downtown Long Branch oasis of culture. Written by actor-turned-playwright Ian August and starring Andrea Gallo — respectively the son and the mother on Tilt Angel‘s family tree — the one-woman play goes up for two days of previews on Thursday, September 8; opens on September 10 and continues through September 25.
Directed by Marc Geller (who recently helmed an acclaimed NYC staging of Noir, by Middletown’s own Stan Werse), Donna also serves to inaugurate the re-branded Second Stage performance space at NJ Rep — a space formerly named after local newsmaker Solomon Dwek (and sanded off in the tradition of things named after Michael Ritacco, Enron and Saddam).
For Highland Park resident Ian August, the new play would appear to launch the second stage of his career — but, far from representing a rookie effort by an earnest wannabe Williams or Starbucks Stoppard, Donna is one of FIVE full-length, award-winning scripts that the busy writer has completed and seen performed in public since he more or less retired from acting five years ago (this in addition to dozens of one-act playlets).
One of those previous plays, the drama Missing Celia Rose, was chosen for staging at NYC’s prestigious Summer Play Festival from a field of more than a thousand submitted scripts — and another, the showbiz-insider comedy Submitted by C. Randall McCloskey, just wrapped a critically lauded stint at the New York International Fringe Festival in a production that starred Brian O’Halloran of Clerks and other Kevin Smith specialties.
As for Donna Orbits the Moon, well, it’s being pitched like so: “Something is not quite right with Donna: She’s a loving mother, a devoted wife, and a minor celebrity to all the bake sale planners in town — but something is making her spacey, and she’s not sure what it is. Therapy is out of the question — and church isn’t the place to share one’s distress. Donna will need to pass through space and through time — all the while listening to an unlikely voice — and try to break free from her gravitational pull to learn just how she can land.”
We reckon that the above description still only scratches the surface of this piece, and as for the author, well, he’s only going to drop a few tantalizing hints as to what we can expect to see as we move beyond the namesake month of August and into a new moon of September. A few Qs and As with Ian August, coming right up.
Ian August the playwright (right) was once Ian August the actor — co-star, with Andrea Gallo, in NJ Rep’s surreal oddity TILT ANGEL.
upperWETside: Well, Ian, it seems that since the first time we met you’ve lived a whole ‘nother lifetime as a successful playwright — I’m sure you’re having the time of your life too, but speaking both for myself and some other theatergoers, we’re hoping that you haven’t completely shut the door on stage acting. Seeing you in things like TILT ANGEL and ROBBER BRIDEGROOM, I can say that some of us miss Ian August the actor.
IAN AUGUST: And I miss acting sometimes — but as a writer I feel that I get the opportunity to play all of the roles in my head. Plus, I get to eat salty, fatty foods again!
I still make myself available for voice work. But I love writing, to the extent that I literally can’t wait til my next opportunity to do it. I work a full time job, and a lot of times I come home and immediately get down to working on a play. I’m also working on my first novel — oh, and I started working on a graphic novel as well!
Sounds like you got the bug, bigtime. Whatever happened to the archetype of the writer as embittered, frustrated alcoholic, burning his Great American Novel that he struggled with for thirty years?
What can I say — I love being prolific and productive. And the response that I’ve gotten for my writing has convinced me that it’s really where I should be at this point.
All of my full length plays have had readings and won awards. My first play Missing Celia Rose was workshopped at the Summer Play Festival, at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival…and it got produced in Bermuda! They paid me to do my play, and they flew me out to Bermuda — then the next year, those same people wanted me to judge their festival, so they flew both me and my partner out to Bermuda!
I’ve also done about 25 ten-minute plays, one of which, Le Supermarché, was published in 2007 — it went on to win a Samuel French award.
You’ve had some of those shortie works performed at New Jersey Rep also.
I wrote one for one of their “Theater Brut” short play programs in 2005 — the theme of the night was “Sacrifice,” and I did something called Abraham on the Mount: The Week Before. It showed Abraham, prior to offering up his son as a sacrifice to the Lord, bringing a goat up the mountain as an offering. I played the Goat, as a Bugs Bunny sort of character who tells Abe, ‘If you wanna really impress God, kill your son.’
NJ Rep also did a reading of C. RANDALL McCLOSKEY, as did Holmdel Theatre Company. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, pretty much everyone from the Holmdel company reprised their roles at the Fringe Festival.
Just about everyone; I got five of the six actors from the Holmdel show to do it in New York — Brian, Carol Todd, Bob Senkewicz, Rebecca Harris Flynn…the play was actually written for Brian, and with a lot of these actors in mind. I’m inspired by my friends, and I’m writing predominantly for my friends these days.
One of those friends being Andrea Gallo, for whom I’m assuming you wrote DONNA ORBITS THE MOON?
I had a phenomenal experience working with Andrea on Tilt Angel, which, you know, was a difficult play for a lot of people — I never knew if the audience was getting what was going on in the show. Then after one performance a woman came up to me and told me that she had lost her mother in an accident at sea — sort of similar to how my character loses his mother in the play; a strange, inexplicable accident — and she told me she understood exactly where everything was coming from; that this weird little play resonated with her on a very real level. It just reinforced for me how even a very stylized, surreal kind of story can have a deep emotional connection to the audience at its heart.
I worked with Andrea several times — she performed a supporting role in my first Fringe Festival play, as an abusive mother, and she was brilliant. I did rewrites all through the rehearsal process, and she was able to work so well through all that pressure. When I started thinking about Donna, I immediately thought of her — I have no doubt she’ll be sensational in this show.
I’m a little unclear as to what to expect with this show; what do you feel like telling us about it?
Well, Donna is a Midwest housewife, a loving spouse who discovers that she has anger issues, and she’s not sure why…she begins to hear a voice inside her head. I don’t want to give too much away, but this voice in her head is a specific individual’s voice; not a heavenly voice.
I don’t write characters that don’t take some sort of a journey, and Andrea and I talked repeatedly about what works in the play — we met in Central Park one day to discuss it, and she’s been involved all the way in helping it all come together.
Well, we look forward to opening night, then, and we’ll tell you to “break a pencil point” on this and McCLOSKEY and all the other projects you’re currently juggling.
We’ll see what the next step will be. For now, I’ve been getting a great response to all of my writing, and I want to continue to focus upon it. I’m loving this!
Previewing September 8 and 9 at 2 and 8pm ($35), and opening with a catered reception on September 10 ($60), Donna Orbits the Moon continues Thursdays through Sundays until September 25, with all regular performances priced at $40, and reservations available right here.