‘Love’ is a Many-Splintered Thing, in NJ Rep Comedy

mad-love-cast(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.

DIRDEN ROLLS A LUCKY ‘SEVEN’ WITH HIS DIRECTORIAL DEBUT

Your Blues COLORA familiar face on the Two River Theater stage, Brandon J. Dirden (right) returns as a first-time director, with a production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS that opens the new Two River season this weekend. 

Last time the Drama Desk looked in on Brandon J. Dirden, the actor was preparing for his starring turn in the Two River Theater world premiere of writer-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine; a project that capped a busy year on the Broadway stage (where he won acclaim as Martin Luther King Jr. in the Tony winning All The Way), the TV screen (a recurring role as Agent Aderholt in the FX series The Americans), and — with wife and frequent co-star Crystal A. Dickinson — the ongoing adventure of new parenthood.

When the native Texan helps Two River Theater Company inaugurate its new season this Saturday, September 12, it will be without Santiago-Hudson, the collaborator who previously directed him in the August Wilson plays Jitney (in Red Bank) and a 2012 production of The Piano Lesson that earned the actor an Obie award. It will, however, be in the spiritual company of the late great African American playwright, whose ten-play “Century Cycle” receives continued exploration by TRTC, with a limited engagement of Seven Guitars that runs through October 4 — and that represents Brandon J. Dirden’s first foray as director. Continue reading

FORBIDDEN SEX, FERAL MEDIA: AN AUSSIE PLAYWRIGHT, ON WHY AMERICANS LOVE OUR NASTY STORIES

NG1 COLOR(L-R): Layla Khoshnoudi, Jacob A. Ware, Judith Hawking and Gregory Haney star in “Nobody’s Girl,” the dark comedy that makes its American debut this weekend at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch.   Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS

It takes place in a world pretty much like our own; one where a shocking account of the most unspeakable sexual scandal hijacks the 24-7 news cycle — and where the whole thing threatens to come crashing down, when the “victim” in the story departs from the standard script.

If playwright Rick Viede has learned one thing in the three years since moving to the U.S. from his native Australia, it’s that America’s celebrity-obsessed, conflict-crazed media culture is even more “ridiculous” and “feral” than the one he left behind — no mean feat for the land that gave us Rupert Murdoch. The realization that “the temptation is always there to twist the volume way up” inspired Viede to revisit his play “Nobody’s Girl;” a “dark comedy” that makes its Stateside premiere this weekend at the Jersey Shore’s edgy-play incubator, New Jersey Repertory Company.

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A DREAM CAST, A NIGHTMARE SCENARIO, A SLOW-SIMMERING NOIR AT NJ REP

closure23Gary Cole plays one-man Good Cop/ Bad Cop with Biniam Tekola in CLOSURE, the steamy tropic-set noir drama now in its premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company.

Summertime is noir time — a fact borne out by the programmers of Turner Classic Movies, and by the crime-thriller authors who rush to ready their latest page-flippers for beach-blanket consumption. There are many more of us for whom the seemingly celebratory season of sun and surf instead conjures thoughts of temperatures-rising passions “touched by fire;” of lost hours spent disappearing into the crowd and cacophony of a blackout night-before…and of the harsh morning-after light that hammers its way past the dusty venetian-blind barricades of a small and stifling room.

Here in what’s normally a season of rest for new dramatic productions in the region, New Jersey Repertory Company has stepped up with a slowly simmering noir scenario that’s in sync with the coastal currents, cocktail-fueled confessions and sudden storms of a Jersey Shore July — one that jettisons the signature concrete settings of the naked city for the patio furniture, potted palms, pastels and deceptively laid-back pacing of a small (and not terribly specific) Caribbean resort island.

Written by Richard Dresser (Rounding Third) and tautly directed by Joe Cacaci of of LA’s legendary Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble, the regional premiere Closure makes for a tense but tight fit with the similarly claustrophobic confines of the Long Branch playhouse’s shadow-box stage. Its quartet of characters — the parents of a college-age young woman who’s gone missing; the American expatriate police detective charged with investigating the disappearance; a “person of interest” hotel worker — are castaways in a curiously depopulated place that offers little room for hiding, and no apparent options for escape from the personal demons that cruise like sharks in the unseen waters beyond. Too caught up in the lethally languid spell of this oppressive “paradise” to do what they know to be the right thing, they make another excuse, put another drink on the tab — and help turn what could have been a turgid potboiler into a darkly compelling piece of theater.

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TRTC CAST TAKES A ‘CHILL’ PILL; STAYS AFTER SCHOOL

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Will Connolly (center) and the cast of BE MORE CHILL carry the energetic world premiere musical beyond the school year, as Two River Theater extends the originally announced engagement through June 28. (photo by T.C. Erickson)

(Originally published on RedBankGreen.com June 18, 2015)

The academic year may be ending right about now (if not sooner) for most high schools — but for the cast of the school-set musical Be More Chill, Graduation Day has been delayed another week.

The Two River Theater Company team announced recently that the amped-up, sci-fi infused, satirical tunefest — a production originally scheduled to ring down the curtain after June 21 — has been ordered to “stay after school” by popular demand, with a round of five additional performances between June 25 and 28.

If you haven’t caught this talent-packed, ready-for-primetime piece of work —the third consecutive world premiere in a season of surprises at Two River — you may be missing out on a darkly comic and brightly energetic offering; one that closes out the current TRTC schedule on a “high” note in more ways than one.

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EMILY’S LIST: FUN WITH FATE ‘N FAMILY AT NJ REP

Emily Linder vert COLORClockwise from top left: Marnie Andrews, Dana Benningfield, Corey Tazmania and Jenny Vallancourt star in in THE REALIZATION OF EMILY LINDER, the play by Richard Butler making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory on April 25.

The first time that Richard Strand had one of his scripts produced at New Jersey Repertory Company, it was a Kafka-esque comedy by the name of Ten Percent of Molly Snyder — a nutty nightmare in which a young woman’s very identity threatens to vanish in a vortex of clerical errors and berserk bureaucracy.

Here in 2015, Strand is represented in Long Branch once again with The Realization of Emily Linder — a world premiere work in which a middle-aged woman gathers her daughters together to inform them that she has determined the exact date and time of her death.

If both of those scenarios seem like they wouldn’t be out of place on Rod Serling’s vintage Twilight Zone, the California-based playwright doesn’t consider that an insult — going so far as to cite Serling as one of his primary writerly influences.

“I didn’t see a lot of plays back when I was ten years old,” offers the author of numerous published plays, dating back some four decades. “It became clear early on, that there was some good writing and storytelling to be found on TV.”

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SWEET ‘BLUES’ ON RED BANK’S UPPER WEST SIDE

BrandonJDirdenBroadway and TV actor Brandon J. Dirden returns to Red Bank as star of YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE, the drama by Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson that begins its world premiere engagement this weekend.

It’s been quite a year-and-change for Brandon J. Dirden, the Obie award winner whose previous projects for Two River Theater Company include August Wilson’s Jitney, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, in which he starred alongside his brother Jason. The 35-year old actor made a big impression on Broadway — as Dr. Martin Luther King, no less (and alongside Bryan Cranston’s LBJ) — in the Tony-winning smash All The Way. A role on the FX series The Americans found him becoming a regular presence as FBI Agent Aderholt — and somewhere along that timeline, he and his wife, actress Crystal Anne Dickinson, became the parents of a baby boy.

When Brandon Dirden returns to Red Bank this weekend, he’ll be reuniting with his Jitney director — Tony winning actor (and August Wilson authority) Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also steered Dirden to that Obie in a 2012 production of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. The vehicle for their collaboration this time is Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine — an original script by Santiago-Hudson that stands as the second of three shows making their world premiere on Bridge Avenue this spring.

Merritt Janson co-stars as Judith, a well-to-do Manhattanite whose encounter with homeless-shelter staffer Zeke (Dirden) sparks an Upper West Side dinner party invitation that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.” Andrew Hovelson, Roslyn Ruff and Charles Weldon complete the cast, and your upperWETside Control Voice caught up with Brandon J. Dirden as Your Blues prepped for its first preview this Saturday, April 11.

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An intimate premiere hits the “Spot” at NJ Rep

M Spot 3(COLOR)Pheonyx Vaughn is a massage therapist summoned to the rescue of long-married couple Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker in THE M SPOT, Tucker’s original play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

Long ago and far away, on a broadcast-network landscape far removed from Netflix, Showtime and HBO, the characters of L.A. Law mined comic gold from an unspecified, life-changing boudoir maneuver known as “the Venus Butterfly.” Here in 2015, on the stage of New Jersey Repertory, a pair of L.A. Law castmates have gone far beyond the Butterfly with “The M Spot,” the unorthodox and frankly refreshing play now in its world premiere run.

Written by actor and author Michael Tucker — and pairing Tucker with Jill Eikenberry, his longtime partner in life, love, series television, book tours and the olive oil business — this study of a marriage at the crossroads (and an unexpected detour that marks the way home) could perhaps only have been successfully realized by the veteran couple known as The Tuckerberrys. It almost certainly could never have been brought before area audiences by anyone other than the Long Branch-based NJ Rep company.

Directed by Rep regular Evan Bergman — whose past credits include the ensemble piece “Jericho,” a New York production of which co-starred Eikenberry — The M Spot casts the two performers (best known as L.A. Law associates Ann and Stuart) as Maddie and Jerry, a long-running partnership whose diminishing sex life and diverging interests have left them “becoming each other’s mothers.” In the play’s first act, claustrophobically confined to an edge of the tiny Rep stage, the audience is invited ready-or-not to listen in, as the couple scroll through a litany of complaints, confessions, and conflicting accounts of trivial (but pivotal) incidents from a decades-long relationship that began as a thrilling extramarital affair.

Addressing the audience one by one — in a manner not unlike how TV lawyers stand up and argue their cases — the middle-aged marrieds harp on each other’s annoying habits (her overuse of “I know;” his refusal to give up smoking pot), lament the betrayal of their own bodies (her recurrence of breast cancer; his inexplicable rash), and can’t help but summon up the ghosts of their parents (her dad, his mom) on their way to grappling with the nature of truth (“an aphrodisiac,” as Maddie sees it).

It’s a session that’s colored — the stars’ assurances to the contrary — by the publicly private experiences of Eikenberry and Tucker (there’s even a sly plug for his novel After Annie). It’s also an entertaining interlude, in the way that something like Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild can be when done properly — but it’s not really The M Spot, and observers who sense that there’s much more to be discovered on the other side of that wall are proven correct in the play’s second half.

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