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.