NJ Rep’s ‘Horses’ is a confessional karaoke

Estelle Bajou is a stranger in the strange land of a 1990s karaoke bar, as “Wild Horses” continues its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (Photo by Suzanne Barabas)

(Published in the Asbury Park Press on March 2, 2018)

Technically it’s a “one woman show” — albeit one whose stage is populated by a full house of humans. But if “Wild Horses” is the rare solo showcase that seeks to capture what it’s like to be “alone in the crowd,” it’s also a reminder that the most confessional, revelatory, soul-searching monologues require an audience to happen.

The latest in a series of National New Play Network “rolling world premiere” productions at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the script by Allison Gregory takes its title from the epic 1971 ballad by the Rolling Stones —and its peculiar rhythm from the novel setting of a little karaoke bar in 1990s “Anytown USA;” one whose jukebox is decidedly heavy on the sounds of the 1960s and 70s. Most of us have surely been there — or someplace very much like it — before, and the Jessica Parks set design presents a cozy comfort zone amid trappings that are alternately period-correct (that “Michelob Dry” sign!) and partly crazy (those LP covers of Andreas Vollenweider and Bobby Sherman?).

Into this dimly lit oasis walks “Woman” (Estelle Bajou), a mom who’s apparently slipped away from the kids this evening under pretense of attending a book club. At first a bit wide-eyed, as if it had been a lifetime since she last set foot in such a place, the stranger quickly acclimates herself to her surroundings; chatting up the regulars and finding the liquid courage to take the tiny stage. It doesn’t take many sips of her drink before she lapses into a long and winding soliloquy; a tale of lost innocence, freed spirits, and pent-up desires that transforms the nameless bar into a place at the crossroads of confessional booth and spoken-word slam.

Equipped with her own special song to share (the folk-rock-drug anthem “Horse With No Name” by America), the newcomer is inspired to embark upon an epic recollection of an awkward youth; a saga of hard-fought freedoms, daring escapes and adolescent adventures with a circle of acquaintances that included the likes of Skinny Linney and Mean Dean. NJ Rep returnee Bajou, who made a big impression as the almost magical mechanic in “The Jag,” runs a storyteller’s gamut in her animated recollections of underage drinking, underage driving(!), entirely un-romantic early sexual experiences, and a deep undercurrent of sadness that courses through a family life that’s both suffocatingly oppressive and coming apart at the seams. Working under the direction of company co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, the actress occupies all corners of the stage with a disarming energy; offering up a variety of voice characterizations, while maintaining a sense that this breakneck ramble through suburban bedrooms and dusty fields is going someplace fast. And you can bet that last jukebox quarter that those wild horses of the title figure into the action.

Attendees at all performances of “Wild Horses” are strongly advised to skip dessert and arrive at the theater some thirty minutes before showtime — at which point they’ll find the show already in progress, as a company of “bar patrons” takes turns at the mic, under the watchful eye of onstage “bartender” Carl Hoffman. The mostly-young mix of student players, community theater veterans and moonlighting NJ Rep staffers sets the scene courtesy of a shuffle-mix of classics that run from Elvis, The Beatles and Shirelles to Tom Petty, Eagles and Carole King. It’s an entertaining interlude that lends a hint of backstory to those nameless ships-in-the-night who happen to share the same space (catch Neptune’s Velda Harris in a rendition of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” that suggests a whole other one-woman show going on just beyond the wings).

As Bajou’s Woman continues to spin her yarn, the patrons dwindle away to a hardy few souls who sit silently like ghosts while they take in the scene; the company drifting back in occasionally to act as a sort of solemn chorus, in the play that quickly transitions to a more mystical plane than that commonly occupied by one’s neighborhood watering hole. Before long, it becomes clear that the visitor has not randomly chosen this place out of all the gin joints in the world — and that there remains a purpose, and a highly personal payoff, beyond the shared story and a song.

Depending on one’s own tolerance for the seldom-solicited stories of the neighbor on the next barstool, observers might find the Woman’s monologue to be the stuff of the most emotionally compelling theater — or the sort of experience for which you’d chew your drinking arm off at the elbow to escape. Bajou’s character makes no apologies to, and no customized allowances for her listeners — and it falls upon the audience, having laid down their juke coin and made their choice, to follow where the story goes in hopes that they’ll soon be hearing their song.

Presented without intermission — and with that recommendation to arrive 30 minutes before scheduled start time — “Wild Horses“ continues Thursdays through Sundays until March 25. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($46) are available by calling (732)229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.