Shore area natives John Caliendo and Sophia Parola are pictured in rehearsal for THE PROMOTION, the play that makes its world premiere in Long Branch this weekend. (photos by Andrea Phox Photography)

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), March 5, 2020

“I tried to take on as many hot-button issues as I could with this play,” confesses playwright Joe Giovannetti. “You could say I put a lot of powder into the powderkeg!”

The play in question is The Promotion, a “comedy about surviving in the dog-eat-dog world of business” that will very shortly become the latest in a long line of shows to make its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The hot topics include race, gender, traditional social hierarchies, sexual tension, and the relentless reality-show competitiveness of modern life — in other words, just another day at the office break room for some — all of it framed in a way that’s “funnier than not funny…it’s a dark comedy, but the treatment of the content is serious.”

Speaking from his Chicago home, the writer-technician-designer-actor-director and sometime filmmaker insists that, while it’s set inside an insurance sales office, the play is not necessarily based on his own past job experience in a “pretty soft-edged” agency. Rather, it’s inspired by “any place where competition rules, and where people try to hack the system to get an edge…it’s a thing that’s baked into our culture, but it’s super-corrosive to treat every interaction as a competition.”

In the show that goes up in previews beginning tonight, March 5, a pair of co-workers named Trish (Sophia Parola) and Josh (John Caliendo) are insurance agents who exist on more or less equal footing in the company power structure — until an opportunity presents itself that both of them want, but only one of them can have. The subsequent jockeying for favor finds both the black woman and the white man exploring the outer limits of just how far they’d go to claim that sought-after prize.

As one of many NJ Rep offerings developed through the National New Play Network, The Promotion has been workshopped for audiences at DC’s Kennedy Center, as well as in Atlanta and Giovannetti’s home base of Chicago. That said, the official fully staged debut boasts an engagingly local angle in the casting of the leads, both new to the Long Branch stage. The young stage and screen veteran Caliendo is a native of Point Pleasant, while Manalapan-bred Sophia Parola is an alumna of both Monmouth University and Brookdale Community College, where she first caught the acting bug under the direction of the school’s longtime drama prof John Bukovec.

The two lead actors are joined by Chantal Jean-Pierre (as Lois, a senior colleague described by Giovannetti as a “voice of God” and “Greek chorus”), and by Broadway veteran Phillip Clark (as Mr. Buchanan, a businessman whose arrival impacts the office equilibrium from the outside). The cast of fresh faces is under the expert guidance of prolific director Evan Bergman, whose critically acclaimed projects for the Rep company now number upwards of a dozen (we’ve lost count).

While jokingly referring to his first-time alliance with Bergman as a “shotgun marriage,” the playwright credits the time that he spent working closely with his director in Atlanta for helping The Promotion get in shape for its premiere.

“Seeing this play being read for audiences three times in three different cities has been really helpful,” Giovannetti maintains. “I’m a white man who’s written a play with two black woman characters, and I appreciate talking to people about what I might have gotten right, or what might be off base.”

“The actors also bring generationally different perspectives to their characters,” the playwright says of the story in which the authority figures — the ones who wield the ultimate decision on that prize — are never seen. “The play does end in a fairly resolved way…just maybe not the way that you might have expected!”  

L-R: Chantal Jean-Pierre, Sophia Parola, Phillip Clark, and John Caliendo star in Joe Giovannetti’s THE PROMOTION.  

Basically, Giovannetti explains, The Promotion asks a question as to “what’s the real problem” behind why some capable people advance up the corporate ladder, while others are left behind…”Is it systemic? Political? Or just personal?”

“Authority figures internalize values that they don’t necessarily believe in,” the playwright observes, by way of explaining how a corporate culture can push the same tired narrative — and make the same mistakes — decade after decade. “And the whole process of being judged…whether it’s a performance review at the office, or a review of your play at a festival…leaves most people with some feeling of suspicion about the whole thing.”

But of course The Promotion is a comedy, albeit a dark one — as well as a project that finds its author “really excited to be there in Long Branch,” where he looked in on rehearsals (and where he plans to return for the play’s initial performances this weekend). To Giovannetti, it’s another chance to seek a different audience’s input as to the script’s ability to capture different voices from that fictional workplace, and its representation of the wider world beyond.

“It’s a bit of an experiment, trying to write a main or lead character that isn’t the same identity as me,” the playwright says. “I humble myself to the needs of the characters, and I talk to other people, so that I can give voice honestly to these characters.”

“You try to find something human; something that’s reducible to a common denominator,” he adds. “It’s kind of why we make theater!”

The Promotion previews at 8 pm on March 5 and 6 and 3 pm on March 7 (tickets $45); opens at 8 pm on Saturday,March 7 ($65; includes post-show reception), with a 2 pm matinee on March 8 available for a $55 ticket. The show continues through April 5 with performances on Thursdays, Fridays (both 8 pm), Saturdays (3 and 8 pm), and Sundays (2 pm). Reserve tickets online at njrep.org, or by calling 732-229-3166. NOTE: ALL PERFORMANCES CANCELLED AS OF MARCH 14 due to Coronavirus public health emergency.