7/22: NJ Rep Banks One in the KITTY

SK11NJ Rep regular John FitzGibbon raises a glass with Judith Hawking as the parents in SAVING KITTY, the comedy by Marisa Smith going up this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.  (photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

When it comes to instantly resonating, high-concept tag lines, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company know that they don’t come much meatier than “Guess who’s coming to dinner.” From those awkward get-togethers at the Macbeths’ place…to the conflict-laden cocktail klatsch of NJ Rep’s hyper-recent Happy…having a handful of oil-and-water characters attempt to make nice with each other in a cordial social setting has long been a red-meat menu staple of dramatists and farceurs alike.

When the guests meet the hosts in Saving Kitty, the whole lot of them will have been coached in the social graces by a bona fide specialist in this sort of thing — director Evan Bergman, whose productive association with playwright Jack Canfora (Poetic License, Jericho, Place Setting) has seen many an ostensibly celebratory occasion between families or friends devolve into decadent layer cakes of betrayal, deceit and binge drinking. For the comic Kitty, Bergman works for the first time with Marisa Smith — an up and coming playwright who just might be a VERY familiar figure to an entire generation of actors, directors and wordsmiths.

SK8Classic red state/ blue state types make for purple passion, when Christian Pedersen and Sarah Nealis co-star in SAVING KITTY at NJ Rep.

Add her husband’s surname of Kraus, and Marisa Smith stands revealed as one half of Smith & Kraus, co-founders of the dramatic imprint that’s published over 600 full-length plays, one-acts, reference works and actor’s guides since 1990. As her fourth full-length play to be produced for the stage, Saving Kitty takes a tried-and-true setup — daughter brings home her new boyfriend to meet the folks — and puts a tangy twist on notions of prejudice and progressive attitudes, by framing the parents as staunch Eastern liberals and the new beau as an Evangelical Christian.

Solidly credentialed in professional stage work and TV projects, the cast features John FitzGibbon and Judith Hawking as the parents, with Sarah Nealis as the daughter and Christian Pedersen as the coming-to-dinner catalyst. Subscribers and habitues of NJ Rep will recognize FitzGibbon’s marvelous voice and manner from numerous shows; most recently Bakersfield Mist and Puma (in which he played novelist Erich Maria Remarque). Pedersen — a Shore native who appeared on the downtown Long Branch stage in the sensational spooky western Dead Ringer — just came off an engagement of Sleuth alongside actor/ congressman/ right-wing pundit Fred “Gopher” Grandy.

Your upperWETside correspondent saved some toil and trouble, and invited Marisa Smith to illuminate us as to the beginnings of her recently minted career as a playwright, and the observations that went into what became Saving Kitty. Read on…

MARISA SMITH: I was born in Princeton…my father was a college professor, and we moved to Dartmouth, to Hanover, New Hampshire. I went to Wesleyan…then I moved to New York to be an actress. I kept getting cast as a hooker.

Having been an actor definitely helps you as a playwright…I came to it as someone who had a sense of what words worked best coming from a person’s mouth, rather than just sitting on a page. Then my husband Eric Kraus and I started Smith & Kraus in 1990…and we’ve got two sons, so all of that kept me busy for a good number of years. I got exposed to a lot of amazing new plays in the process…although there was that one time when I threw a play across the room.

Finally in 2005 I decided that it was time for me to try my hand at writing a play…it took me over a year to write my first play, which was called The Book Group. I was in a book group then, and I was very conscious of the blue collar/ white collar tension there in my college town. I noticed how the women in the group would get attracted to contractors, who were working on their houses while their doctor husbands were gone…one friend actually cried when the job was finished, and she had to say goodbye to the contractor that she had become close with. I got to thinking, what would happen if one of these wives went all the way with this contractor?

There were other things going on around that same time…one of my sons was not doing well at school, and so I told myself I’ve got to get out of my own head; to start writing. I went to the local library for an hour each day…it was very Pavlovian; I was totally in writing mode. Children tend to take up a lot of emotional energy, but I was able to make the time for writing, and to have the time for my family.

If you really want to do something, you find the time…you just do. It’s always there inside you; it marinates in there; you think about it in the shower. Chekhov…not that I’m comparing myself to Chekhov…found the time for it somehow, even though he was a busy doctor, he was poor, he got no sleep, he had TB, and all these relatives to support…I don’t know he managed to do it, but he did.

Well, The Book Group got produced in East Bedford, Vermont — and the minute I heard the audience laughing at something I’d written, I was hooked. From there I went on to write The Divine Family Comedy, and I was asked to create a few shows for the Hanover Inn, there in Hanover…I did a couple of Christmas shows and a reunion show. Saving Kitty is my fourth full length play, and it came about because someone saw a ten-minute play that I did in the Boston marathon of Plays. Saving Kitty had its premiere last summer, with the WHAT…the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater…on Cape Cod. Seeing that production inspired me to rewrite the second act completely, so what you’ll be seeing at New Jersey Rep is nothing like what they saw last summer.

A lot of my plays come from things that bug me…Moliere, not that I’m comparing myself to him, used that same sort of impulse to poke fun at society so brilliantly. Living in a small, very liberal college town, I noticed that the only group that these very educated, upper class people felt comfortable making fun of, were Evangelical Christians. I’m very familiar with the WASP culture, of course…but I also got to meet some Evangelicals, and they were not at all like the stereotype that someone who’s not from that world would imagine. We got friendly with a family of Christians; the kids were home-schooled, but would come to the regular school to take part in sports and music and other activities. Brilliant kids, one of whom now works in fashion, which is not at all the sort of industry where you’d expect to find an Evangelical Christian.

They say that if you say something about an Islamist’s faith, they’ll chop your head off, but if you say something about an Evangelical’s faith, they’ll pray for you instead. I learned that once you get to know someone, you wind up having more in common with them than not. And that’s one of the ideas behind Saving Kitty…the notion that people who pride themselves on being so progressive and open minded can still approach some people with a whole set of prejudices.

In Kitty there’s that one plot, and there’s another storyline, in which there’s a tense situation developing…the father in the play works for the U.N., and they’re monitoring a situation where Islamists are threatening to take over the army in Turkey. But the main role in this show is the mother…she’d do anything to break it up. It’s a comic tour de force; the part has been read by several actresses, including Wendy Malick, and it’s all part of this sense of heightened reality in my work…my plays have been called ‘Gurney on acid.’

I’m so happy to have discovered playwriting. When you’re working that way, the world becomes your palette…everything can be used. It scares people away from you some times!

Saving Kitty presents matinee and evening previews on July 25 and 26 (2pm and 8pm) and July 27 (3pm); opens July 27 at 8pm (sold out), presents a matinee performance on July 28, then continues until August 25 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained here