A DREAM CAST, A NIGHTMARE SCENARIO, A SLOW-SIMMERING NOIR AT NJ REP

closure23Gary Cole plays one-man Good Cop/ Bad Cop with Biniam Tekola in CLOSURE, the steamy tropic-set noir drama now in its premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company.

Summertime is noir time — a fact borne out by the programmers of Turner Classic Movies, and by the crime-thriller authors who rush to ready their latest page-flippers for beach-blanket consumption. There are many more of us for whom the seemingly celebratory season of sun and surf instead conjures thoughts of temperatures-rising passions “touched by fire;” of lost hours spent disappearing into the crowd and cacophony of a blackout night-before…and of the harsh morning-after light that hammers its way past the dusty venetian-blind barricades of a small and stifling room.

Here in what’s normally a season of rest for new dramatic productions in the region, New Jersey Repertory Company has stepped up with a slowly simmering noir scenario that’s in sync with the coastal currents, cocktail-fueled confessions and sudden storms of a Jersey Shore July — one that jettisons the signature concrete settings of the naked city for the patio furniture, potted palms, pastels and deceptively laid-back pacing of a small (and not terribly specific) Caribbean resort island.

Written by Richard Dresser (Rounding Third) and tautly directed by Joe Cacaci of of LA’s legendary Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble, the regional premiere Closure makes for a tense but tight fit with the similarly claustrophobic confines of the Long Branch playhouse’s shadow-box stage. Its quartet of characters — the parents of a college-age young woman who’s gone missing; the American expatriate police detective charged with investigating the disappearance; a “person of interest” hotel worker — are castaways in a curiously depopulated place that offers little room for hiding, and no apparent options for escape from the personal demons that cruise like sharks in the unseen waters beyond. Too caught up in the lethally languid spell of this oppressive “paradise” to do what they know to be the right thing, they make another excuse, put another drink on the tab — and help turn what could have been a turgid potboiler into a darkly compelling piece of theater.

closure10Having upped the name-actor ante considerably in several of its recent shows, NJ Rep and director Cacaci have convened a dream cast for this noirish nightmare, highlighted by two awesomely accomplished veterans of variously scaled screens. As Jane, mother of the missing person, Emmy nominee Wendie Malick uses the nuanced skills she’s brought to her acerbic comic characterizations in Just Shoot Me and Hot in Cleveland to delineate a woman who is “just being myself, which isn’t very appealing these days” — a woman who, mired as she is in a fog of life-and-death uncertainty, is anything but a victim. Frustrated by the apparent inaction of the investigating officer; unwilling to return to the soul-killing normalcy of her deteriorating marriage, Jane disdains even the hoped-for “Closure” of the play’s title in favor of a last-ditch attempt at divining her daughter’s whereabouts — inserting herself into the investigation in a way that, handled by lesser hands, would have been the stuff of a made-for-Lifetime quickie…or, horror of horrors, another episode of idiot-box evergreen Criminal Minds.

Cacaci and Dresser are far from lesser hands, however — and for the role of the “legendary” Detective Roy Hadley they’ve gone directly to the multi-faceted character ace who’s made a particular specialty of law-enforcement types whose concealed-weapon backstories range from vaguely sinister, to downright Satanic (as in the short-lived and “ahead of its time” series American Gothic). Currently a regular on HBO’s Veep — and with an astonishing resume that’s seen him perform laser-etch memorable turns in both comedic (Office Space, the Brady Bunch movies) and dramatic settings (The West Wing, Fatal Vision) — Gary Cole has a stage role here that’s right in his proverbial wheelhouse. Trading the city-slicker suit and tie for polo shirts and khakis (and the straight-up bourbon for a succession of hotel-bar “old lady drinks”), Hadley is nonetheless a classic-noir Cop With a Past; a refugee from his own former life on the mainland, whose well-modulated sense of control butts up against a personal experience that makes him strangely sympathetic to Jane’s situation…perhaps even to an unhealthy degree.

As Jane’s husband Peter — a traveling businessman-type who’s somehow never where he’s supposed to be at any given moment — Victor Verhaeghe (Boardwalk Empire) puts a friendly face on a family man whose own involvement in this case runs deeper than that grieving-dad surface. Newcomer Biniam Tekola makes a vivid impression as Kenny, a waiter whose sideline source of income (and tendency to be at or near the scene of anything shady going down around the resort) put an island-style spin on the noir stock character of the street-punk fall guy. Each of these four characters are keeping their share of secrets; from themselves as well as from each other — and together they’re so many misfit toys, stranded largely by choice in a place where the fruit-punch sweetness of the tourist-friendly diversions masks a rotgut kick of moral corruption and squalor.

You won’t be able to secure tickets to the NJ Rep production of Closure if you haven’t done so already — all performances in the limited engagement that runs through July 19 have been sold out — but there’s talk afoot of castmates Cole and Malick bringing this play to a big-city stage in months to come, and as such we’ll refrain here from any spoilers regarding the drama’s climactic plot twists (a chain of occurrences that also tantalizingly tease this story’s prospects as an opened-up screen adaptation). Take it here for more info on upcoming events in the neverending New Jersey Repertory season; a schedule that resumes on August 20 with the return of Judith Hawking (Swimming at the Ritz) in the US premiere of the drama Nobody’s Girl.

Gary Cole, Wendie Malick open in CLOSURE at New Jersey Rep 

(Originally published in the Asbury Park Press on June 26, 2015)

To cut to the question, what inspired a couple of instantly familiar faces and voices from screens big and small — actors with some frankly awesome credentials in feature films and TV series — to spend their summer seeking “Closure” in Long Branch; doing a play at little-but-loud New Jersey Repertory Company? To hear Gary Cole tell it, the deal was made through “Dinner’ with a couple of “connected” guys.

“Joe (director Joe Cacaci) is an old friend,” says the Emmy nominated ace who’s currently a regular on HBO’s “Veep,” and who’s reprised his cult-favorite character of “Office Space” boss-from-heck Lumbergh in a series of HipChat spots. “He and Dan Lauria ran Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble in LA, where they’d gather whatever actors they could, and just get new work out there…I did several of their readings.”

“Wonder Years” veteran Lauria had established a link to NJ Rep with the premiere of his mobbed-up comedy “Dinner with the Boys” (now wrapping an Off Broadway run) — and when Cacaci presented Cole with a script entitled “Closure,” the Long Branch launchpad for new plays seemed an ideal venue for the drama that the actor calls “compelling, unusual…a great piece of writing.”

Now in previews (and making its world premiere this weekend), the play by Richard Dresser centers around what Cole calls “every parent’s nightmare…a child gone missing.” Playing Hadley, a detective who arrives at the resort-island home of the college-age young woman — and who may just have some ulterior motives of his own — Cole enters into a noir-infused scenario that evolves into a study of “how people deal with this weighty circumstance…it’s dark, but there’s humor in it; the kind of humor that arises under duress.”

The versatile actor who jokes that “they call on me when they’re looking for someone skeevy” has portrayed law enforcement types both suspicious (“A Simple Plan”) and downright Satanic (the “ahead of its time” series “American Gothic”). He’s worked extensively in comedies, cartoons (“Harvey Birdman”), and series TV (“West Wing”); having convincingly conjured both America’s go-to family man Mike Brady, and real-life family killer Jeffrey MacDonald. What’s more, for the first time since the Playwrights Kitchen days, he’s sharing a stage with an actress of whom he professes to be a big fan — fellow Emmy nominee Wendie Malick.

Reprising her role as the mother of the missing student (a part she played in a workshop reading two years ago), the comedic specialist best known for her series work in “Just Shoot Me,” “Frasier” and “Hot in Cleveland” joins Cole and fellow Rep newcomers Victor Verhaeghe (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Biniam Tekola in a project about which little more can be revealed, apart from the fact that the plot “takes its twists and turns.”

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