CONSIDER THE SOURCE: NJ REP PREMIERE IS RIPPED FROM (AND RIPS) THE NEWS

L-R: Conan McCarty, Andrew Rein, and Eleanor Handley co-star in THE SOURCE, the new play by Jack Canfora that enters its world premiere engagement this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photos by SuzAnne Barabas

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link News (Long Branch, NJ) March 7, 2019

“SAFE” — it’s a word that somehow applies itself very well to New Jersey Repertory Company, nearly every bit as much as it doesn’t.

After all, as the area’s sole theatrical troupe dedicated exclusively to the promotion of new and original works for the stage, the Long Branch-based professional playhouse has seldom played it safe in its choice of edgy and unorthodox scripts — taking things far afield of the family musicals, drawing-room mysteries, and Neil Simon sitcoms that once comprised what we thought of as “local Shore theater.” In the process, founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas have continued to cheerfully challenge their faithful audiences with deeply adult themes, complex characters, you-can’t-DO-that-on-stage tech work, language as salty as the briny Atlantic surf, and the occasional flash of full frontal.

When Jack Canfora refers to New Jersey Repertory as “safe,” he’s talking about a creative concern that’s offered snug harbor to the Huntington, NY-based playwright and his body of work throughout the years — a place of “insightful, talented artists who are all working toward the same goal…they’ve been very supportive and tremendously generous to me, and whatever my career is, I owe it to them.”

It was NJ Rep that first committed to a full staging of a script by the young writer, actor and musician from Long Island, with a production of the drama Poetic License that almost didn’t make curtain when the lead actor had to bow out at the eleventh hour. The show would actually go on to an Off Broadway run in NYC — as would Jericho,another Canfora work that faced its first sudience in Long Branch — and in between those two scripts, NJ Rep would premiere Place Setting, a cocktail-saturated suburban storm that counted Jack Canfora himself among its ensemble cast.

In addition to establishing a fruitful working relationship with “Gabe and SuzAnne,” the Jack-of-many-trades found a likeminded creative collaborator in Evan Bergman, the in-demand director whose projects as a Rep regular number more than a dozen — and who helmed every one of Canfora’s productions in downtown Long Branch and at New York’s 59E59 stage. For his first project at NJ Rep in some eight years (not counting a contribution to one of the company’s short play festivals at their new West End Arts Center facility), the playwright reunites once more with Bergman and the Barabas team, for the world premiere of The Source, an intimate drama that’s been described as being “ripped from the headlines” — or, perhaps more to the point, the moral gray areas behind the black-and-white headlines.

Freely inspired by the phone-hacking scandal that rocked the international empire of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his family a few years back, the play that goes up in previews tonight, March 7 (and opens officially on Saturday night, March 9) germinated when its author found himself “quite taken with that story…it said a lot about us; the way the media shapes our collective narratives.”

While the not-always-visible media landscape represents the geographical setting of The Source, Canfora emphasizes that the play takes place  more at the crossroads of “human nature and the pursuit of power.”

“For the protagonists, it’s about the acquisition and retaining of power…looking at life like a zero-sum game,” explains Canfora, placing the play’s themes squarely within the playing field of contemporary politics, business, and public life. But, while much of how the press operates comes in for some well-deserved criticism, the writer stresses that “what’s happening right now…the constant attacks on the media…is shameful and really dangerous.”

In the play that won a prestigious Edgerton Foundation Award in the nationwide 2017 competition, Conan McCarty makes his NJ Rep debut as media mogul Roland McCabe — note the initials — owner of major newspapers in cities around the world, in addition to a cable news operation of considerable political influence.

When an ethically questionable practice exposes the lengths to which McCabe will go to score a story — and, in the process, threatens to shake his empire to its foundations — the old man summons a pair of trusted lieutenants to enact damage control: his heir-apparent son (Andrew Rein), and a young female protege (Eleanor Handley) .

Rep regulars may recall Rein from his role in Jericho— but the actor’s connection to Canfora extends as well to their collaboration as co-creators of the web series  The Small Time, a Webby Award winning project whose pilot (and thus far only completed episode) boasts the participation of LA Law castmates and husband/wife team of actors, authors and entrepreneurs Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

The “Tuckerberrys” (whose own collaborations with NJ Rep include last season’s Fern Hill) appear in the story of “a literary agent whose only successful clients are his parents,” and the episode can be viewed online at smalltimeseries.com.

The branching out into different dramatic realms — in this case one that exists at a remove from the live stage — falls well within the creative comfort zone of a playwright who, while he enjoyed a stint as a teacher of great modern American plays to high school students, “didn’t grow up going to the theater…I wanted to be a songwriter.”

Having cited a short list of influences that leans more to the Beatles, the Boss, Bob Dylan, and Elvis (Costello that is; possessor of “a poetic, savage wit”) than to Shakespeare, Canfora still endeavors to get in front of audiences to sing and play guitar whenever his busy schedule allows — and has applied his skills as a composer of incidental music to some of his past productions.

For the moment, the new world premiere play remains priority A-1 on the jukebox — and, as his custom, Canfora has been sitting in on rehearsals as much as possible; discussing the script with his actors and director, and marveling at the dexterity of the tech team as they address the challenges of an intimate play that unfolds within three different locations.

“I think that Evan has a better handle on this play than I do, and the actors have been great,” he says. “I’m fine tuning throughout; mostly by making cuts and trims.”

“These are very smart people who are making suggestions…and I’d be wrong to ignore them!”

Running a mix of evening performances (Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays  at 8 pm) and matinees (Saturdays at 3 pm, Sundays at 2 pm) The Source continues through April 7 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway (corner of Liberty Street) in Long Branch. Tickets ($50, or $60 for opening night with reception) can be reserved at njrep.org, or by calling 732-229-3166.