12/12: Drawing a ‘Stache on the Season

EM9ABurt Grinstead, Jim Shankman, Catherine LeFrere and Uma Incrocci star in ESTHER’S MOUSTACHE, the comedy (written AND directed by Laurel Ollstein) that makes its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.  (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

It hasn’t exactly been a barrel-o’-monkeys bunch of weeks over at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the professional stage troupe who, as we detailed here in an Asbury Park Press article, spent much of the post-Sandy dark ages dealing with such headaches as physical damage to their playhouse and company guest house, the loss of their parking lot, an extended blackout — and the massive financial hit they took from Annapurna, the drama that saw the forced cancellation of eleven performances.

But hey, it’s the holiday season — a time of year in which the Rep regulars have traditionally eschewed the Scrooges and George Baileys of the standard stagescape, in favor of alternative entertainments which have either dispensed with the Christian thing entirely (2009’s Two Jews Walk Into a War; 2008’s Cupid and Psyche) or had as little to do with seasonal trappings as possible (the trailer park setting of last year’s Bakersfield Mist). And if it’s December in the largely deserted canyons of lower Broadway LB, it’s as ripe a time as any for a dose of NJ Rep’s patented black-comedy cheer — in this case an ensemble study of classic Jewish guilt, dysfunctional dynamics and artistic mind-warp entitled Esther’s Moustache.

Pitched as “a comic play about love, sex, heritage and letting go,” the show that kicks off its month-long engagement in Long Branch is the brainchild of LA-based Laurel Ollstein — a veteran of the (Tim Robbins-founded) Actors Gang ensemble, and a bi-coastally celebrated artist and teacher who also happens to be the director of this world premiere production.

For the show that goes up in previews this Thursday, December 13, Ollstein works with Catherine Lefrere (of NJ Rep’s Just in Time) as the play’s protagonist, a cartoonist who’s having trouble balancing a romanticized fantasy life with a rather intrusive reality. “Reality” in this case comes barging in — warm potato latkes in tow — in the person of her grandmother, played in a delightful bit of casting by Jim Shankman (acclaimed by this reviewer for his edgy, intense turns in Yankee Tavern and Jericho). Rep newcomer Uma Incrocci is the cartoon-based fantasy figure who appears to her creator, and Burt Grinstead (a cast member in the script’s first public performance) plays a messenger who apparently both the real and surreal planes of the play’s action.

Your upperWETside correspondent spoke to the playwright-slash-director, about how that Moustache was coming in…

Ollstein_3 uclaupperWETside: It occurs to me that even though it’s not unheard of for a playwright to direct her own work, that has not been the norm over at New Jersey Repertory. In fact, unless I’m mistaken it just might be the first time they’ve ever done such a thing.

LAUREL OLLSTEIN: I hadn’t realized that this was the first time. A lot of people think it’s not such a great idea for a lot of playwrights to do such a thing…it’s difficult for them to get the proper distance.

But to me, it’s not so much about me as a writer having absolute control over my work, as it is being involved with that collaborative process between me and the actors. I have a background in collaborative theater in Los Angeles and Minneapolis…I was part of the Tim Robbins’s group out in LA. And I enjoy that kind of thing very much; each artist brings in a new voice to the process.

Now, you’ve also continued to maintain an acting career of your own…have you ever wrote AND directed AND acted in one of your works?

I actually did for this one-woman show I wrote about Dorothy Parker…but directing yourself on stage can be very difficult; sometimes you really need another eye out there.

I’m glad you mentioned Dorothy Parker, who in case you didn’t know was actually born in Long Branch…in fact, Gabe Barabas from NJ Rep has coordinated several Dorothy Parker Day events in town over the years. One year the theatre premiered an original musical based on her stories; they’ve done readings and shown movies and even had a Dorothy Parker lookalike contest…which my wife won!

According to your website you’ve written not one but TWO pieces about Parker…

I enjoy writing her voice…I’ve done the one woman show, and a one-act piece. The short play takes place in the bathroom while a party’s going on outside; she’s in there thinking about killing herself.

ESTHER’S MOUSTACHE is one of many world premiere productions that came out of NJ Rep’s Monday night reading series. I’m curious as to whether you shopped the script to them, knowing about their reputation for developing new work, or if they or someone in their orbit reached out to you…

It came about organically about two to three years ago…a play of mine called Cheese was being done as part of the Tru New Voices readings series in New York, and they brought (NJ Rep co-founder and artistic director) SuzAnne Barabas in to direct it…she really loved it, but it just had too many characters for New Jersey Rep to be able to do a full production. She said, I wish you had a four person comedy…and it just so happened that I did!

They had a full house for the reading in Long Branch, which is definitely something you don’t see every day. People who go there are really invested in the process of a play’s development.

Okay, I’m looking right now at a publicity shot for the show, and I’m going back and forth over whether I should even ask you to explain it for our readers. We’ve got a young guy who’s sporting a monocle and a Hitleresque moustache…we’ve got a sexy blonde in a glittery gown, a dark haired woman in a paint-stained smock, and what appears to be a guy dressed as an old lady. Oh, and all of the female characters are also sporting moustaches.

Well, without giving away too much of it…although once you see the pictures there’s not much of a secret about Jim’s character being played in drag…the play has a magic realism quality to it. It’s about a cartoonist; one who creates bawdy comics and graphic novels, who’s had a lot of tragedy in her life, and who shuts herself off into her cartoon world. A cartoon character is basically her companion, until her grandmother erupts into her life. And the guy in the picture is a messenger who also enters her world; who complicates things because he’s German.

It’s about how her past, her Jewish family heritage, catches up with her. I guess that if there’s a message involved it would be that cutting off your past doesn’t help your creativity…the negative experiences that we try to run away from are what feed us.

The part about the German boyfriend and the Jewish grandma coming to visit sounds like it could be the stuff of wacky small-town dinner theater…but the part about the artist who exists in a kind of reality/fantasy inter-zone gives me every reason to believe that your comedy will run a little deeper than a Neil Simon-ish, New York sitcom farce.

I am actually from LA! I have family in New York…my parents are from there; all my relatives, aunts, uncles, everybody. But my parents are the ones who decided to move to the West Coast. They’re both therapists!

Yikes, so then we’re talking more Woody Allen than Doc Simon…

Ha! I guess I have a little bit of both in me. You could say that this play, like all of them really, is my therapy…it’s how I’ve survived. And, you know, humor is how my people have survived all through the years. You write funny; you tell a joke.

Esther’s Moustache presents matinee and evening previews on December 13-14 (2pm and 8pm) and 15 (3pm); opens December 15 at 8pm (sold out), presents a matinee performance on December 16, then continues until January 13 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained here