Expanded from an article published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), January 2-3, 2020

There’s the simmering resentment and uncertainty that threatens the comfort-zone routine of long-standing relationships. The assault on stability that comes from devastating divorce and dawning dementia. The literal scars of hard-knocks life experiences; the petty rivalries; the public humiliations; the buried secrets that seldom lie still — and, for a bit of R-and-R, the odd side trip to the local concentration camp.

Or, as the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company might have it: That’s “Family” Entertainment!

Granted, there would never have been much of a thing as live theater, if human beings hadn’t always been such conflicted and unhappy bundles of raw nerve-endings. But even in an environment where the marital martial artists George and Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? promise to be once again the toast of Broadway, the folks at the Garden State’s premier greenhouse for original plays are experienced hands at framing the many ways in which people are not so nice to each other — and a quick glance at the 20-year track record of the Long Branch-based company is a whirlwind tour of bad-housekeeping dynamics, racial animosity, romantic betrayal, paralyzing grief, debilitating illness, fragile facades, and sexual power-plays, often presented with a comic edge as bitterly dark as baker’s chocolate.

The truly ironic thing is that all of this relationship-threatening dramatic unpleasantness has been the publicly purveyed product of one of the greatest and most enduring personal/ professional marriages in the history of our region’s arts scene — that of Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, co-founders (and, respectively, executive producer and artistic director) of NJ Rep. Partners in life and art and community vision, the two share a range of interests that span everything from poetry to horror films, to the long-running TV western Gunsmoke (a topic on which they literally wrote the book) — and as they prepare to roll out a frankly awesome 21st season of original mainstage productions on downtown Broadway LB, “Gabe” and SuzAnne are once more holding up a mirror to the good-bad-and-ugly of how we’re getting along with each other, here in 21st century America.

Speaking from their West Long Branch home during a characteristically busy holiday interlude, Dr. Gabor Barabas maintains that “when we choose our plays we have no formula…but if you look at things historically, we gravitate toward certain relationship plays.”

“It’s whatever we find compelling; whatever we feel is relevant across the generations,” adds the Hungarian-born retired neurologist and published poet, citing as one example the 2018 production Issei, He Say, a portrait of two Asian immigrant families dealing with their own cultural differences.

“And in the end, it all comes down to the idea of family.”

The people who head up an extended family of Rep regulars have kept the figurative porch light on throughout a couple of tumultuous decades in a fast-morphing city; not only via their branded playhouse at Broadway and Liberty Street, but through their purchase and ambitious plans for the onetime West End Elementary School property now re-imagined as the West End Arts Center (to say nothing of their stewardship of the historic “Buffalo Bill House,” recast in the new century as a lodging for guest performers and creative people during the rehearsal and run of a new show).

Here at the kickoff to the 2020 season, the welcome guests include a pair of players long familiar to NJ Rep audiences — actors Wendy Peace and John Little — as well as director M. Graham Smith, a Bay Area-based veteran of the National New Play Network, who happens to have been able to spend his holidays with family here in the local area.

The project they’ve been preparing for imminent debut is Bone on Bone, a “two-hander” comedy-drama by MaryLou DiPietro, and the latest in a very long line of plays to make its world premiere at the “modestly scaled but expansively visioned” venue In Long Branch, NJ.

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Daven Ralston and Joseph Carlson inhabit the recent past and the distant future in New Jersey Repertory Company’s production of VOYAGER ONE, the Jared Michael Delaney play that makes its world premiere this weekend in Long Branch. (Andrea Phox Photography)

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), June 20, 2019

From the small smart-screens of the hand-held mobile device nation, to the grandest IMAX domes of the superhero mega-plex multiverse, the triumph of Sci-Fi over the popular culture is ultimate and undisputed. It’s a fever-dream scenario hammered home all the more by every news report of driverless cars, drone-based deliveries, apocalyptic forecasts, artisanally designed humans, realiTV presidents, and revised UFO protocols — although, strangely enough, there’s one cultural corner that remains largely untouched by its cold and probing light.

According to Jared Michael Delaney, “You don’t see science fiction on stage, hardly ever” — and while the actor-playwright allows that shows like the musical Be More Chill or the Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime have incorporated elements like pill-sized supercomputers and android-based immortality into their studies of all-too human relationships, “whether it’s out of fear of special effects or whatever, a lot of producers shy away completely from considering it.”

“I’m a sci-fi fan myself…to me, it’s at its best when it’s tackling some real philosophical questions,” explains Delaney. With that in mind, the Philadelphia-based actor and playwright got busy employing one of the sci-fi genre’s specialty devices as a means to re-examine one of his signature themes — namely, the search for our tribal identity, whether it be through sports-team fandom, nation of origin, or membership in our curious but ever-endangered species.

Going up in previews tonight, June 20 — and opening officially on Saturday, June 22 — Voyager One represents the latest in an ever-expanding line of plays to make their world premiere on the downtown Broadway stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. And, while it’s the first of Delaney’s full-length scripts to be produced by the company, it stands as a home-away-from-homecoming of sorts for the performer who’s co-starred in several NJ Rep mainstage offerings, most recently alongside fellow Philly phenom (and frequent NJ Rep flyer) Ames Adamson in the 2018 two-hander The Calling.

Like Delaney’s local debut (in 2016’s Mad Love), The Calling was directed by one of NJ Rep’s most industrious and inspired creative partners, Evan Bergman — and it’s Bergman who returns to the NJ Rep director’s chair for the fourteenth (fifteenth? sixteenth?) time, with a drama that unfolds within two distinctly different points on the timeline — the not-so-distant past (where a team of researchers labors on the Voyager 1 space exploration project of the play’s title), and an imponderably distant future (where “a discovery upends everything that humanity has been led to believe”).

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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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6/13: ‘Stare’ Into the Spotlight

Trailer Tradge’: Trey Gibbons, LeeAnne Hutchison and Shane Patrick Kearns are among the denizens of a Florida mobile home community in AMERICAN STARE, the world premiere play going up this week at New Jersey Repertory Company. (photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

Speaking on behalf of playwright Tony Glazer, director Evan Bergman explains the title of American Stare as “that blank, empty look…that Tony saw in the people down there.”

“Down there” is Glazer’s home state of Florida — specifically, a trailer park that serves as the Sunshine State setting for Stare, a “dark comedy” that initiates its world premiere run beginning this week at  New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Not that we don’t have our own legacy of Trailer Park Tradition “up here” — but anyone who enters into NJ Rep’s latest mainstage offering with expectations of easy laughs — at the expense of characters who make TV’s Trailer Park Boys look like the Bloomsbury Set — has a double-wide rethink coming.

In fact, give Bergman a script about a group of working-class Floridians (including a young widow and a disabled man who’s been accused of being a child predator) up against the suit ‘n tie specter of disruption to their very Way of Life, and he’ll tell you that trailer parks are “very fiercely connected communities…there’s a positive, bonding thing going on.”

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Walls Come Down, Curtain Goes Up

Busy playwright, sometimes actor and even occasionally bar-band musician Jack Canfora is back at New Jersey Repertory with a new drama, JERICHO, kicking off its world premiere engagement in Long Branch beginning October 13.

He chuckles when we call him The Prophet of the Suburbs — but neither does Jack Canfora dispute the observation that he finds his dramatic subject matter behind the large and meticulously decorated doors of the upper middle class enclaves; the manicured exteriors that just barely conceal the lies and deceit and outright treachery that paid for these happy homes.

The last time that New Jersey Repertory Company invited the Long Island based playwright into their house, it was for the world premiere of a drama called Poetic License — an angst-filled domestic drama, in which a seemingly upbeat occasion results in a respected academic standing exposed as a fraud (and worse) to the family who thought they knew him. As directed by Evan Bergman, it was a study in unrelenting emotional brutality, in which characters are stripped clean of everything they held true and precious — in our review for the Asbury Park Press, we called it “a play of complex emotions, with no guarantee of closure…the cast, tight-lipped and far from exuberant at curtain call, seemed drained by the experience of wrestling with these deeply unhappy characters.”

About a year and half prior to that, Canfora invited NJ Rep audiences to a different sort of get-together — a dinner party for three couples, drinking, fighting, fucking and laughing in the face of uncertainty on New Year’s Eve 1999. Directed once again by Evan Bergman and featuring an ensemble cast highlighted by Carol Todd (as a scarily organized wife for whom even domestic upheaval must occur on a tightly delineated timetable) and Canfora himself, the seriocomic Place Setting elicited our observation that “the tag-team bugaboos of brutal honesty and lapsed inhibitions wreak havoc on this New Year’s Eve get-together…with guilt, despair and self-delusion pushing back from the other side.”

It’s enough to have sent most souls scurrying out of the suburbs and back to the relative safety of the Bard’s bloody battlefields — but here in the October Country of 2011, the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage returns to Castle Canfora for a third time (and with Bergman manning the megaphone once more), with the world premiere of the drama Jericho.

While Place Setting had as its dramatic catalyst the foolishly fizzled fearmongering over the dreaded “Y2K Bug” (you remember…planes fell from the sky; markets crashed and took every desktop Dell with them), Jericho has at its heart a much more sobering catastrophe — the 9/11 attacks that many playwrights are even now just beginning to grapple with. In Canfora’s script, a handful of characters in and around Manhattan (i.e., the burbs) wrestle with their different reactions to devastating tragedy and senseless loss — and you could read the title as both a reference to the Nassau County hamlet, and to that Biblical place where Joshua set the walls to tumbling down.

Returning to the NJ Rep stage in this show (a so-called “rolling premiere” from the National New Play Network) is Carol Todd, one of our favorite actresses working the regional scene and one whose powerhouse performances have supercharged such Rep offerings as Apple and Whores. She’s joined in the cast by returning Rep veterans Kathleen Goldpaugh, Andrew Rein, Jim Shankman and Corey Tazmania, as well as relative rookie Matthew Huffman. Meanwhile, on the eve of Jericho’s first previews and opening weekend, upperWETside tracked down Jack Canfora for a glimpse behind its walls…

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