Walls Come Down, Curtain Goes Up

Busy playwright, sometimes actor and even occasionally bar-band musician Jack Canfora is back at New Jersey Repertory with a new drama, JERICHO, kicking off its world premiere engagement in Long Branch beginning October 13.

He chuckles when we call him The Prophet of the Suburbs — but neither does Jack Canfora dispute the observation that he finds his dramatic subject matter behind the large and meticulously decorated doors of the upper middle class enclaves; the manicured exteriors that just barely conceal the lies and deceit and outright treachery that paid for these happy homes.

The last time that New Jersey Repertory Company invited the Long Island based playwright into their house, it was for the world premiere of a drama called Poetic License — an angst-filled domestic drama, in which a seemingly upbeat occasion results in a respected academic standing exposed as a fraud (and worse) to the family who thought they knew him. As directed by Evan Bergman, it was a study in unrelenting emotional brutality, in which characters are stripped clean of everything they held true and precious — in our review for the Asbury Park Press, we called it “a play of complex emotions, with no guarantee of closure…the cast, tight-lipped and far from exuberant at curtain call, seemed drained by the experience of wrestling with these deeply unhappy characters.”

About a year and half prior to that, Canfora invited NJ Rep audiences to a different sort of get-together — a dinner party for three couples, drinking, fighting, fucking and laughing in the face of uncertainty on New Year’s Eve 1999. Directed once again by Evan Bergman and featuring an ensemble cast highlighted by Carol Todd (as a scarily organized wife for whom even domestic upheaval must occur on a tightly delineated timetable) and Canfora himself, the seriocomic Place Setting elicited our observation that “the tag-team bugaboos of brutal honesty and lapsed inhibitions wreak havoc on this New Year’s Eve get-together…with guilt, despair and self-delusion pushing back from the other side.”

It’s enough to have sent most souls scurrying out of the suburbs and back to the relative safety of the Bard’s bloody battlefields — but here in the October Country of 2011, the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage returns to Castle Canfora for a third time (and with Bergman manning the megaphone once more), with the world premiere of the drama Jericho.

While Place Setting had as its dramatic catalyst the foolishly fizzled fearmongering over the dreaded “Y2K Bug” (you remember…planes fell from the sky; markets crashed and took every desktop Dell with them), Jericho has at its heart a much more sobering catastrophe — the 9/11 attacks that many playwrights are even now just beginning to grapple with. In Canfora’s script, a handful of characters in and around Manhattan (i.e., the burbs) wrestle with their different reactions to devastating tragedy and senseless loss — and you could read the title as both a reference to the Nassau County hamlet, and to that Biblical place where Joshua set the walls to tumbling down.

Returning to the NJ Rep stage in this show (a so-called “rolling premiere” from the National New Play Network) is Carol Todd, one of our favorite actresses working the regional scene and one whose powerhouse performances have supercharged such Rep offerings as Apple and Whores. She’s joined in the cast by returning Rep veterans Kathleen Goldpaugh, Andrew Rein, Jim Shankman and Corey Tazmania, as well as relative rookie Matthew Huffman. Meanwhile, on the eve of Jericho’s first previews and opening weekend, upperWETside tracked down Jack Canfora for a glimpse behind its walls…

The sensational Carol Todd stars in Jack Canfora’s JERICHO — reuniting the two former castmates (third and fourth from left in group shot) from NJ Rep’s 2007 production of PLACE SETTING.

upperWETside: Good to have you back, Jack. We’re here to talk about JERICHO, which is a play about which I know next to nothing.

JACK CANFORA: Well, it’s basically about how different people deal with trauma in their personal lives…how we respond to grief and loss in different ways. Two characters in the play suffer direct losses from 9/11…they question the comfort and the consolation they get, and question the nature of their connections.

Sounds pretty sober and serious, right? But there are places where people deal with this sort of thing by using humor — sometimes it’s the best approach.

So, audiences will be leaving the theater humming the 9/11 jokes?

Well, not exactly. I didn’t start out trying to write a 9/11 play, but it became the thing through which the characters are forced to deal with inescapable, harsh realties. I’m talking about humor here in the sense of having that detached, glib, ironic outlook that so many people in my generation have gone through life with. For me, growing up in the 80s meant that most people worth knowing had that cool, ironic attitude — and if you were sincere about things, you were a sucker.

I’m very guilty of that myself, but as you get older, all that irony becomes kind of hollowing. And the character in Jericho finds that the ironic approach just doesn’t quite work in dealing with this situation, processing all the personal pain. Whereas another character has a reaction that’s as different as can be — he’s a man who was there at the Twin Towers; one of the lucky ones who made it out, and his way of dealing with the pain, of searching for authenticity, is with violent rage.

One of the things that’s most interesting to me is the fact that you’re working once more with Carol Todd, who’s just been so amazing in everything we’ve seen her in. She won me over with this one play, the name of which escapes me all of a sudden, in which she’s a jilted wife who’s dying of cancer. Every now and then you come across a performance that rings so true to you personally that it literally comes across as something aimed just at you…what she did on stage so perfectly captured this good friend of mine who went through the same thing, this almost elegant sort of serenity in her last days. 

You’re thinking of Apple, which New Jersey Rep did a few years back. Carol is absolutely on fire here…if you’re a fan of hers, you are not gonna be let down. She really takes the ball and runs with it, and she’s been closely involved with the script from the start.

You’ve worked closely with her in the past, both as a writer and a fellow cast member, so did you write this script with her in mind?

I can’t out and out tell you that I wrote the play with her in mind specifically, but I had a very early draft of the script together around the time that I got to act with her in Place Setting…I asked the cast if I could buy them all a beer, and if they could be so kind as to read this early draft of the play out loud around the table.

When she read it, something really clicked and I found myself thinking more in terms of Carol as that character, rather than this undefined person. In fact, originally the character was not quite within her age range; I found myself thinking how I could push it more towards something that would be perfect for her.

Being an actor yourself part of the time, and a musician; just being someone who knows what it’s like to stand in front of an audience — has that informed the way you write? Have you made a conscious effort to stay mindful of the rhythms of speech; how it all sounds rather than how brilliant it looks on the page?

Being an actor has helped me to write for people; to write not so much in a ‘writerly’ way, but in a way that actors can really make work on stage. Even when you’re talking to an interviewer, as I’m doing right now, you find yourself talking more thematically, in more conceptual sort of language than the words that you would put in the characters’ mouths.

But, yeah, it’s great to experience the process from the actors’ side of the equation, and it’s something I really should do more often. I think Place Setting was the last thing I did, and that was several years ago — I want to make it clear that I’m still available for work! It’s something I’d love to continue doing.

And, he’s available for kids’ birthdays, sweet sixteens and quinceañeros.

Well, you know what you have to do — write that one star vehicle that you and ONLY you can pull off. Anyway, it seems as though your writing work has been going forth and getting noticed outside the greater New York region. 

Well, this is a National New Play Network production; what they call a rolling premiere, so there are a few other theaters doing it…Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, Florida Studio Theatre. Place Setting, meanwhile, has had readings in London — and a very different version of Poetic License is coming to Off Broadway this winter.

Over the summer I got to work with the actor Harris Yulin on a program commemorating the centennial of Tennessee Williams, at Guild Hall out in Montauk — Tennessee at 100, it was called. We had people like Mercedes Ruehl, Eli Wallach involved, so that made for an interesting experience. Also over the summer, I worked with Evan Bergman, who we’ve got as director again, on a screenplay, which we’re shopping around now — such a different sort of experience; a new, fun, enjoyable sort of challenge.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that you find yourself reunited with people like Evan Bergman, Carol Todd — and of course NJ Rep, who’ve always been great believers in your work.

There’s something to be said for working with people you’re comfortable with — it makes things easier. And the people at New Jersey Rep, SuzAnne and Gabe and everyone, are really like family by this point. It’s such an unusual place — I’ve been lucky to find harbor there.

That said, there are some creative people out there who thrive on conflict and tension; that’s how they prefer to get the results they desire. 

I’ve worked with artists who I didn’t love as people — but of course, you don’t have to have zero conflict with everyone to make great art. Anyway, I’m internally conflicted enough as it is…I can create all the misery I want all by myself!

Well, misery loves company and all that, and while we look forward to opening night, we wonder just how much JERICHO is gonna bum everybody out with your 9/11 and your personal trauma…

I think it’s hopeful in a way; there’s a certain amount of humor sugaring the medicine. It’s been said that the perfect play is one where you’re laughing and feeling good while you’re watching it — and after you leave the theater, you realize that you’ve been stabbed!

Previewing October 13 and 14 at 2 and 8pm ($35), and opening with a catered reception on October 15 ($60), Jericho continues Thursdays through Sundays until November 13, with all regular performances priced at $40, and reservations available right here

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