L-R: Steve Brady, Benjamin Satchel, Andrea Gallo, and Amie Bermowitz star in the NJ Repertory Company production of D.W. Gregory’s MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN, opening this weekend. (Photos by Andrea Phox)
Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), August 15, 2019
In the 2018 feature film The Death of Stalin, a cast of veteran comic character players (including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Monty Python’s Michael Palin) has a blast detailing the often murderous machinations of a group of Russian Communist Party insiders, each one jockeying for top dog status after the longtime dictator Joseph Stalin drops dead on the carpet.
As D.W. Gregory reminds us, however, the transition between the uniformed Soviet strongman Stalin and the Cold War regime of the bullet-headed, business-suited Nikita Kruschev wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs — not for the various party functionaries who feared they were on the wrong side of history’s gun barrel, nor for the “ordinary people, who really aren’t political themselves…but who get caught up in massive political upheaval, when society is completely re-ordered.”
The award winning playwright who makes her home these days in West Virginia has been spending a good deal of time in the beachier setting of Long Branch in recent weeks, observing rehearsals of the New Jersey Repertory Company production of her script Memoirs of a Forgotten Man. Described as a work that “wrestles with the idea of public memory…and deals with what happens when a regime rewrites history,” the play opens this weekend as the latest offering at NJ Rep’s branded playhouse on downtown Broadway.
Going up for a pair of preview performances beginning tonight, August 15, the drama is also the latest in a long line of partnerships with the National New Play Network, the organization through which nonprofit theaters like NJ Rep share in the “rolling world premiere” of a featured show, which is produced in several member locales, each with its own director and cast.
While the Long Branch-based professional troupe has often been first out of the box with NNPN shows, in this case Memoirs has been seen by audiences in West Virginia (at Shepherd University’s Contemporary American Theater Festival), and upstate New York (at Shadowland Stages in Ellenville). And, as the playwright (who has had two of her earlier scripts become fully staged productions at NJ Rep) sees it, that’s a good thing.
“As a writer who likes to stay involved with my work, I get to refine the script as it moves from theater to theater…which is great,” she says. “I actually wrote this play with NJ Rep in mind…I often think of their space when I’m writing…and I have to say I was a little dubious about the first production, which took place in a 400 seat house, although they did an amazing job with it!”
Moving back and forth in time between the 1930s era when Stalin cemented his grip on absolute power, and the space-age span of Kruschev, Memoirs of a Forgotten Man displays the signature fascination with 20th century history that served the veteran journalist well in past works like her celebrated Radium Girls (and particularly October 1962, the tense period piece that brought the Cuban Missile Crisis to the NJ Rep home front in 2004). There’s also an implicit parallel to our own American moment, in which the concept of “fake news” and some time-tested tenets of propaganda have combined with some previously unimaginable teechnologies to create a cultural environment in which (as she observed on the Shepherd University website) “we’re losing our grip on realiity because we can’t agree on the fundamentals of facts themselves.”
According to Gregory, “I had the idea for the play well before the 2016 presidential campaign…things like Fox News and Alex Jones, Infowars were on my mind…but I didn’t have a story to hang it on.” That all changed, however, when the author “stumbled across” two books that would bring the project into sharp focus.