IT’S OCTOBER COUNTRY, AND ‘LILY’ IS IN BLOOM AT NJ REP

Joy Danze and Christopher Daftsios star in LILY, the play by Daftsios making its world premiere in Long Branch this weekend. (photos by Andrea Phox)

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), October 24, 2019

 In screen stories like Tender Mercies (and numerous vanity projects starring singers with actorly ambitions), a tale of a musician’s battles with personal demons, past transgressions, and the po’-side of fortune is told with a pronounced twang — and it’s not hard to see why, since no other genre can match country when it comes to that often tense and too-close dance between star and fan.

Locked into a loop of perpetual touring; grinding out product for an increasingly fractured and fickle marketplace, the country music artists who are compelled to meet and greet their followers at events like the annual CMA FanFair can often look like they’d rather be anywhere but there. And here in the heart of The October Country (that place “where it is always turning late in the year,” as per Ray Bradbury, and where boarded-up seasonal businesses are “nailing summer into a series of coffins”), a frequent visitor to our Shore prepares to debut a new dramatic work that fulfills two of his personal goals: to compose “a modern day Greek tragedy,” and “to play a cowboy.”

Regular followers of Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company know the actor Christopher Daftsios from recent-seasons dramas like The Jag, Mercy, and The Substance of Bliss. Beginning this weekend and continuing through a month-long limited engagement, the player steps out as playwright, when NJ Rep’s branded playhouse on downtown Broadway presents the premiere of Lily.

Going up for a pair of preview performances beginning tonight, October 24, the latest in the professional company’s long line of world premiere plays represents the first fully staged production of a script by Daftsios. The actor who saw his one-act “In the Hole” performed at one of NJ Rep’s short play festivals (and who has since expanded that piece into the full-length Circus Dreams) was actually approached by two NYC-based producers who sought to bring Lily to Off Broadway runs — but opted to debut in Long Branch, where “SuzAnne and Gabe Barabas gave me the freedom to explore this story.”

Set backstage at a midwest concert, Lily finds Daftsios starring as Toby Crenshaw, an aging Nashville star who’s “trying to set things right…and not really getting it,” and whose “past comes to bite him in the ass.”

Alternately watched over and enabled by his manager Sam (Tait Ruppert); given some semblance of a moral compass through his bouncer/ assistant Tommy (Adam Von Pier), Crenshaw has an encounter with a fervent female fan (and aspiring performer in her own right) played by Joy Danze — and, without giving too much of the plot away, Daftsios explains that the “questionable character” of Toby “pays for his sins in a big way…I think you’ll be surprised by the pasts of these characters.”

“The play gets into topics that, when I wrote this, I didn’t think would actually be produced on stage,” says Daftsios of the play that’s being aimed at “adults only” audiences. “But I wrote the play that I wanted to see, and SuzAnne was very supportive.”

“The idea of building a play around such an arrogant, narcissistic star just kind of demanded a musicality from all of the other characters,” adds Daftsios. “The people around (Toby) are required to sacrifice their own dreams on his behalf…and this is the kind of character who, when he’s told that the mayor and his wife would like to greet him backstage, says ‘keep that second rate, butt-ugly wife away from my dressing room!’”

While the play touches upon themes that can be construed as “putting America on trial,” the focus remains personal — and, as the author admits, “every part in this play is an aspect of my own personality.”the performance is preceded by a talk with

Directing the four-person cast, and working in Long Branch for the first time, is Sarah Norris, a founding artistic director of uptown Manhattan’s New Light Theater Project. Herself a former stage actor, the director performed with Daftsios in productions of shows by Tennessee Willimas and Neil Simon — and their professional reuinion finds the playwright praising his collaborator as “wonderful to work with…she’s got some great insights into this play, and thanks to her I’ve been able to streamline the script by about nine pages.”

 

“This play has been a listening experience for me…from listening to a lot of music when I started writing it, to listening to the director, and the other actors.”

Still, if there’s any doubt about the matter, Daftsios vouches that “it’s hard to be both the actor and the playwright…I wouldn’t recommend it!”

“It is a certain kind of hell,” the multi-tasking artist maintains. “But it’s a hell that’s worth the journey, in bringing this thing to life.”

No one under 17 will be admitted to performances of Lily, which preview at 8 pm on October 24 and 25 (tickets $45). Lily opens at 8 pm on Saturday, October 26 ($60; includes post-show reception), with a matinee on October 27 available for a $50 ticket. Tonight’s preview features a post-show talk-back session with Daftsios and Norris, while the show on October 31 includes a pre-show chat at 7:15 with Monmouth University’s Kenneth Womack, who will be signing copies of his book Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles and discussing the nature of being a fan. Then on Thursday, November 14, the performance is preceded by a talk with the production’s “fight and intimacy director” (and president of The American Association of Fight Directors), Brad Lemon.

The show continues through November 24 with performances on Thursdays, Fridays (both 8 pm), Saturdays (3 and 8 pm), and Sundays (2 pm), at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway (corner of Liberty Street) in Long Branch. Reserve seating at njrep.org, or by calling 732-229-3166.