(L-R) Jared Michael Delaney, Graham Techler, Alex Trow and Brittany Proia co-star in “Mad Love,” the play by Marisa Smith opening this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS
To cut to the chase, it covers ground that includes sexual violence, the emotional emptiness of 21st century hook-up culture, and the very real damage wrought by the college frat-house party scene. It’s also worth noting that “Mad Love” is “a romantic comedy for cynical times” — one that further folds in talk of frozen sperm, cabbage soup, super-collectible baseball cards and “a lizard named Pogo.”
Opening this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company, the ensemble piece marks the second collaboration between the Vermont-based playwright Marisa Smith and the Long Branch professional troupe, following 2013’s politically charged domestic squabble “Saving Kitty.” Like that previous project, it teams Smith with frequent NJ Rep director Evan Bergman, himself a specialist in just this shade of dark comedy. It also reunites actress Alex Trow with the central role of Sloane Hudson, a twenty-something professional from a wealthy family, whose experiences in the fraternity basements of the Ivy League have apparently left her with some conflicted notions about love, commitment and potential parenthood.
“The hook-up culture in college has had repercussions for Sloane,” says Smith, who with husband Eric Kraus is one-half of the Smith & Kraus publishing concern that’s issued more than 600 full-length plays, one-acts, reference works and acting guides. “She was scared by a traumatic event back then, and has become emotionally detached.”
Ms. Trow, who starred in the premiere production of “Mad Love” at Vermont’s Barrette Center for the Arts, is joined here by a trio of fellow newcomers to the NJ Rep stage, including Graham Techler as Brandon, a good-looking young teacher whose status as a purely physical attraction is thrown into uncharted waters, when Sloane asks him to be the father of her future child (albeit not her husband or live-in lover) via artificial insemination.
Brandon, as it turns out, is struggling with his own rather complicated live-in arrangement — a bro-cave apartment shared with his brother “Doug the De-Fenestrator” (Jared Michael Delany), a frat-house legend whose personal journey through beer-pong party hell has left him literally brain damaged and evidently unemployable. Enter a Ukrainian hooker (Brittany Proia) hired as a birthday pick-me-up for Doug, and things get considerably more complicated still.
“I got the inspiration for these characters from interviewing Dartmouth sorority women…and getting a memorable tour of a frat basement” says Smith, a Princeton-born product of an upper-class college town milieu. “The character of ‘The Defenestrator’ is also based on a real guy, who actually jumped out the fraternity house window…although in his case he was so drunk, and so relaxed, that nothing bad happened to him.”
Calling from a somewhat chilly “Buffalo Bill” House — the historic Long Branch cottage (once owned by the press agent of legendary Wild West showman William Cody) where guest artists often stay during their projects at NJ Rep — the playwright offers words of praise for her director; the set designer Jessica Parks (“it’s like an advent calendar, with things that pop out and back in again”), and the cast, particularly Trow, who “is just amazing…she knows this part so well going into it.”
“I’ve done some minor tweaking, some fine tuning on the script,” says Smith on her recent stay in Long Branch, during which time the setting of the play’s final scene morphed from a restaurant to the boardwalk at Coney Island. “Just the other day an actor inadvertently changed one word for another, and we all agreed that it worked far better than what was originally written.”
“I steal from actors as much as possible,” adds the experienced stage performer turned playwright and publisher. “They have good instincts!”
Professing that “I don’t see how you can direct or produce a show without the playwright being present,” Smith makes the observation that “to me the playwright and the director are mom and dad, and the actors are the grown up children who take what you’ve given them and make their way in the world.”
“I’m harsh on my own work…I understand my pitfalls as a writer,” states the mother of two sons, who tried her own hand at playwriting only after becoming a publisher of other people’s work. “In a way, the best playwriting is sort of ‘no’ playwriting…sometimes the words are just the icing on the relationships and behaviors of the characters.”
Previewing on October 21 at 8 p.m. and October 22 at 3 p.m., “Mad Love” opens on Saturday night, October 22 and continues Thursdays through Sundays until November 20. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($45) are available by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.