IT’S OCTOBER COUNTRY, AND ‘LILY’ IS IN BLOOM AT NJ REP

Joy Danze and Christopher Daftsios star in LILY, the play by Daftsios making its world premiere in Long Branch this weekend. (photos by Andrea Phox)

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), October 24, 2019

 In screen stories like Tender Mercies (and numerous vanity projects starring singers with actorly ambitions), a tale of a musician’s battles with personal demons, past transgressions, and the po’-side of fortune is told with a pronounced twang — and it’s not hard to see why, since no other genre can match country when it comes to that often tense and too-close dance between star and fan.

Locked into a loop of perpetual touring; grinding out product for an increasingly fractured and fickle marketplace, the country music artists who are compelled to meet and greet their followers at events like the annual CMA FanFair can often look like they’d rather be anywhere but there. And here in the heart of The October Country (that place “where it is always turning late in the year,” as per Ray Bradbury, and where boarded-up seasonal businesses are “nailing summer into a series of coffins”), a frequent visitor to our Shore prepares to debut a new dramatic work that fulfills two of his personal goals: to compose “a modern day Greek tragedy,” and “to play a cowboy.”

Regular followers of Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company know the actor Christopher Daftsios from recent-seasons dramas like The Jag, Mercy, and The Substance of Bliss. Beginning this weekend and continuing through a month-long limited engagement, the player steps out as playwright, when NJ Rep’s branded playhouse on downtown Broadway presents the premiere of Lily.

Going up for a pair of preview performances beginning tonight, October 24, the latest in the professional company’s long line of world premiere plays represents the first fully staged production of a script by Daftsios. The actor who saw his one-act “In the Hole” performed at one of NJ Rep’s short play festivals (and who has since expanded that piece into the full-length Circus Dreams) was actually approached by two NYC-based producers who sought to bring Lily to Off Broadway runs — but opted to debut in Long Branch, where “SuzAnne and Gabe Barabas gave me the freedom to explore this story.”

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LIVE THEATER? IT’S NO ZOMBIE ART FORM

Dan Lauria of TV’s WONDER YEARS is among the actors, directors and playwrights taking part in a Theater Brut Festival of Short Plays this weekend in West End…while Ray Dademo and Frank Falisi star as the brothers Mizner, when Ocean Grove’s NENAproductions takes on Stephen Sondheim’s rarely seen ROAD SHOW.

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), October 3, 2019

On a weekend when the Zombie hordes lurch once more along the boards and boulevards of Asbury Park (and the force of nature known as Shatner walks the land, and a couple of veteran Springsteen bandmates play a free concert), a couple of seemingly unrelated happenings serve to remind us that — when it comes to resolutely original, routine-breaking, risk-taking live theater — this place sits squarely within the Land of the Living.

In fact, with more professional and semipro companies active in the area than at any time in recent memory — and several more ambitious fledgling troupes prepping for their turn in the spotlight (Asbury Park Theater, Dromio Theater, and Shore Thing Improv — about which more to come in this space), those who branded the art form a “fabulous invalid” in general, and a walking-dead issue on the local front, have to up and admit that the live local stage is most definitely No Country for Old Zombies.

THE SCENT OF BRUT

The French defined “Art Brut” (“raw” or “outsider” art) as a creative work that “colors outside the lines” of socially accepted, polite, or even legal norms — and while “Theatre Brut” as practiced by the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company is done entirely according to copyright law, Equity rules, and public permit, the (more or less) annual festival of that name represents an opportunity for the Long Branch-based company to assemble an allstar team of their favorite frequent-flyer guest artists — having fun, and playing fast-and-loose with expectations, in a way that allows actors, directors, and playwrights to invade each others’ wheelhouse.

Going up for four separate sessions between tonight, October 3 and Sunday, October 6, the 2019 Theater Brut Festival of Short Plays presents 16 never before seen works, loosely collected under the assigned theme “Some Like It Hot.”

It’s the eighth such event presented by NJ Rep co-founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, and the third to be hosted inside the West End Arts Center, the reborn and repurposed elementary school building (occupying a whole city block worth of Long Branch’s West End neighborhood) that’s the subject of some truly ambitious plans for future seasons. It’s also the centerpiece of the latest West End Festival of the Arts, a five-day fling that kicked off Wednesday night with an all-star poetry reading hosted by poet/ educator/ editor/ musician Daniel Weeks and his magazine This Broken Shore (there are also concurrent visual art and photo exhibits on display for the duration of the weekend).

As with previous years’ themes (some of which have included “The Seven Deadly Sins,” “The Circus Comes to Town,” and “America’s Pastime”), playwrights are invited to submit scripts that interpret the given title in any number of ways — and, as SuzAnne Barabas explains, the concept of “Hot” has inspired the authors to deal with topics that range from sexual relationships, to climate change — and even “elements from the movie Some Like It Hot, like gangsters and drag!”

And, as is the custom, those playwrights are a diverse lot, ranging from award-winning veterans to newcomers — and even a couple of scribes who are more familiar as faces on our nation’s TV screens.

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NJ REP GOES BACK IN THE USSR…AND DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE

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.

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STAR TRACKS & VOYAGERS: SCI-FI COMMANDS THE NJ REP STAGE

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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A SURFING REPORT, FROM AN ARTIST WITH SHOWBIZ IN HER DNA

Playwright and performer Jodi Long brings the showbiz pedigree and the backstory to the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company, with the East Coast premiere of SURFING MY DNA. Photo courtesy of NJ Repertory Co.

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), May 2, 2019

STAGES: SURFING MY DNA at New Jersey Repertory Company

While she wasn’t literally birthed in a dressing room, Jodi Long could qualify as what might have once been called a “trunk baby” — a child born into a hard-touring showbiz family, and seemingly predestined to carry on the family business.

“My parents were entertainers, dating back to before I was born, so I grew up backstage,” explains the stage/screen actress who’s perhaps most familiar as Margaret Cho’s mom on the sitcom All American Girl, and as  Steve Byrne‘s mom on the series Sullivan and Son. “They would pull out a drawer in whatever place they were staying, and that was my crib.”

Prior to making her Broadway debut at age 7 in a show directed by Sidney Lumet, young Jodi hit the road with her folks — Australian-born singer-comedian “Larry” Long and Japanese-American dancer Kimiye “Trudy” Long — as the veteran show people plied their trade at nightclubs ranging from their NYC home base, to the “Chop Suey Circuit” of the Bay Area, with the high point of their decades-spanning career being an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The story of the act known as “Larry and Trudy Leung” — and the experiences of the daughter who had a ringside seat to the showbiz life in her pre-school years — forms the basis of Surfing My DNA, the autobiographical theatrical piece that makes its East Coast debut this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.  Accompanied onstage by musician Yukio Tsuji, Long returns to the downtown Broadway playhouse (where she appeared last year as part of a stellar ensemble of seasoned character actors in Fern Hill) with a retooled version of a work that she first performed in Los Angeles in 2006.

Using music, humor, and her own considerable toolbox of talents, the playwright-performer tells the tale of a marriage and a vanished lifestyle; bolstered by highs like an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show— and haunted by such experiences as Trudy’s time in a Japanese-American internment camp. Continue reading

CONSIDER THE SOURCE: NJ REP PREMIERE IS RIPPED FROM (AND RIPS) THE NEWS

L-R: Conan McCarty, Andrew Rein, and Eleanor Handley co-star in THE SOURCE, the new play by Jack Canfora that enters its world premiere engagement this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photos by SuzAnne Barabas

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link News (Long Branch, NJ) March 7, 2019

“SAFE” — it’s a word that somehow applies itself very well to New Jersey Repertory Company, nearly every bit as much as it doesn’t.

After all, as the area’s sole theatrical troupe dedicated exclusively to the promotion of new and original works for the stage, the Long Branch-based professional playhouse has seldom played it safe in its choice of edgy and unorthodox scripts — taking things far afield of the family musicals, drawing-room mysteries, and Neil Simon sitcoms that once comprised what we thought of as “local Shore theater.” In the process, founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas have continued to cheerfully challenge their faithful audiences with deeply adult themes, complex characters, you-can’t-DO-that-on-stage tech work, language as salty as the briny Atlantic surf, and the occasional flash of full frontal.

When Jack Canfora refers to New Jersey Repertory as “safe,” he’s talking about a creative concern that’s offered snug harbor to the Huntington, NY-based playwright and his body of work throughout the years — a place of “insightful, talented artists who are all working toward the same goal…they’ve been very supportive and tremendously generous to me, and whatever my career is, I owe it to them.”

It was NJ Rep that first committed to a full staging of a script by the young writer, actor and musician from Long Island, with a production of the drama Poetic License that almost didn’t make curtain when the lead actor had to bow out at the eleventh hour. The show would actually go on to an Off Broadway run in NYC — as would Jericho,another Canfora work that faced its first sudience in Long Branch — and in between those two scripts, NJ Rep would premiere Place Setting, a cocktail-saturated suburban storm that counted Jack Canfora himself among its ensemble cast.

In addition to establishing a fruitful working relationship with “Gabe and SuzAnne,” the Jack-of-many-trades found a likeminded creative collaborator in Evan Bergman, the in-demand director whose projects as a Rep regular number more than a dozen — and who helmed every one of Canfora’s productions in downtown Long Branch and at New York’s 59E59 stage. For his first project at NJ Rep in some eight years (not counting a contribution to one of the company’s short play festivals at their new West End Arts Center facility), the playwright reunites once more with Bergman and the Barabas team, for the world premiere of The Source, an intimate drama that’s been described as being “ripped from the headlines” — or, perhaps more to the point, the moral gray areas behind the black-and-white headlines.

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ANGRY ORCHARD: SECRETS, PAIN RIPE FOR THE PICKING AT NJ REP

Kersti Bryan and Christopher M. Smith co-star in APPLE SEASON, the play by E.M. Lewis making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by New Jersey Repertory Company

The Russian master Anton Chekhov had his Cherry Orchard and its group portrait of a fast-fading aristocracy, rotting from the inside out as it falls to the axe of social change. In the latest drama to make its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company, it’s Apple Season in the Pacific Northwest’s Willamette Valley — and it’s there where the low-hanging fruit of past behaviors and secrets threaten the members of one local family with a one-way trip into a wormhole of regret and suffocating grief.

Opening this weekend at the company’s downtown Long Branch playhouse, the play by E.M. Lewis represents NJ Rep’s first staging of a work by the the Oregon-based playwright who, by her own admission, is “the kind who goes back and forth between smaller, personal stories and bigger political plays.” Describing this one as “an intimate little three character play,” the award-winning dramatist declares that its themes of “the danger of secrets and the importance of truth telling” operate within her desire to “write about rural people…the ones who are less visible on most theatrical stages.”

“Sam Shepard wrote about non-urban people in a way that captured the largeness of human questions,” she observes. “People who live in ‘small’ places are people who are still wrestling with some big issues.”

In the production under the direction of Zoya Kachadurian, a funeral brings a sister and brother (Kersti Bryan, Richard Kent Green) back to the family farm that they turned their backs on years ago — leading to an encounter with a neighbor (Christopher M. Smith) who shares a history with both of the siblings, and a situation in which “a legacy of violence” puts an indelible stamp on the here and now. It all unfolds within “the season when the apples are hanging and ready…with no one there to pick them.” Continue reading

LOOKING BACK ON THE BEST OF LOCAL STAGES, 2018

El Chupacabra terrorizes the alternate reality of a cartoonist turned comic book hero, in the 2018 Two River Theater production EL COQUÍ ESPECTACULAR AND THE BOTTLE OF DOOM. Photo by Richard Termine

Published in the Asbury Park Press, December 28 2018

Star-powered casts — and a set of new and diverse voices — set the pace for the live theater stages of Monmouth and Ocean counties in the calendar year 2018. The area served by the Asbury Park Press continued to draw the attentions and the talents of some top-shelf pros, even as its many creative crannies proved that the most interesting things can occur in the most unlikely of venues. Here are a handful of the Great Performances and all-around Good Things that we happened across in the year that was.

New dramas

Bemoaning the fact that comic book characters seem to be hijacking the entire mass culture? Well, get over it, because back at the top of the year, Red Bank’s Two River Theater set the pace with a “superhero play” of supercharged energy: the intriguingly titled El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom. Emerging from Two River’s annual Crossing Borders festival of new Latinx plays, the play by Matthew Barbot succeeded where the mighty Spidey and Superman fell short in their respective musical misadventures; investing its story (of a young unemployed Puerto Rican-American artist turned self-styled costumed crimefighter) with a choreographed visual verve that played, under the direction of Jose Zayas, like a musical minus the music. Throw in a layered plot that segued smoothly between the alternate realities of the dual-identity protagonist, with projected images that heightened the shift between parallel worlds, and the result was a dazzling cultural satire that compared favorably with the company’s trailblazing premiere production of the musical phenomenon “Be More Chill.”

Over at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, some new faces arrived in town with April’s production of Chloe Hung’s Issei, He Say — and those newcomers had a compelling story to tell, in the Chinese-Canadian TV writer’s semi-autobiographical account of an immigrant family’s struggles with assimilation, aspirations, and the next door neighbor, an elderly gentleman of Japanese descent. As the play’s 12 year old central character, Christina Liang headed a superb cast in a drama that placed a perfectly constructed, intimately scaled frame around the big issues of blinding prejudice, national tragedies, home-front secrets, and the things people use to forge alliances in the darkness. Continue reading