It’s “Apple Season” in Long Branch New Jersey

At one point in E. M. Lewis’s “Apple Season” at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, one of the play’s several contemporaneous ‘Rolling Premiere’ productions, Lissie’s former would-be boyfriend Billy (it’s been twenty years) says of her taciturn brother Roger, “Anything there was to know about him, you had to piece together.”  Another time, he tells her “You are the most confusing two people I ever met,” and while Roger had been mentioned just prior, Billy’s plural could apply just to Lissie.

The nature of the relationships among the three “Apple Season” characters isn’t always clear. Neither are the twenty-years-ago details of events that shaped those relationships both then and two decades later. That might seem like a knock on the play, but it is not. On the contrary, that’s just how some people are, deep and private, and how some memories are, faded or repressed, and capturing those human elements in a one-act play is an admirable accomplishment.

It is the present day in rural Oregon, soon after Lissie and Roger Fogerty’s father’s funeral. She is picking apples in the family orchard, before returning to her fourth-grade teaching job in another town. Roger has already left to resume his nomadic hired-hand farming vocation, and Billy, who, at 36, lives on a neighboring farm with his parents (“again, not still”), where he tends to his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, has come to sound out Lissie about buying the Fogerty property. And, we gradually learn, to renew contact and unburden himself of a secret that has festered over the years.

Lissie (Kersti Bryan) and Billy (Christopher J. Smith [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

As they banter and flirt, we learn of the Fogerty family’s turbulent past, following the mother’s early death, and we begin to understand why the mental and emotional upheaval has never abated. Flashbacks, enacted live and before a rear-projection screen, fill in some gaps, but most of what we learn is through the characters’ behavior, their attitude toward one another and the sub-text of their conversation.

Which brings us to the performances, which are, in a word, outstanding. Kersti Bryan reveals more of Lissie’s psyche than the woman herself wants known, which is, after all, the point of the play (and, it could be said, of acting). The three-woman collaboration among playwright Lewis, director Zoya Kachadurian and actor Bryan is as smooth as it is knowing. Christopher M. Smith is a charming Billy. Awkward in Lissie’s presence, he’s nonetheless honest and emotionally available. The two achieve the essential chemistry between Lissie and Billy over a bottle of real AppleJack (if you know, you know), aided by some light-hearted innuendo. Lissie, for example, has plenty of apples, but “I haven’t got any cherries.” Ms. Bryan also coaxes sexiness out of “You can tell a lot about a man by his Swiss Army knife.”

Roger is a strange fellow, bedeviled by life-long anger and resentment he’d had to stifle for years. Richard Kent Smith plays him just that way, with an undercurrent of vulnerability that softens his seeming hostility.

Roger (Richard Kent Smith) and Lissie (Ms. Bryan)

The excellent technical aspects of “Apple Season” belie NJ Rep’s intimate playing area. Jessica Parks’ set is an apple orchard, and the projections, for which I’m assuming lighting designers Jill Nagle and Janey Huber as well as technical director Bryan P. Snyder share credit, are state-of-the-art in design and execution.

A few plot elements strain credulity. Lissie’s (unseen) Aunt Sally’s apparent passivity in the face of an unusual situation is glossed over; how Lissie’s financial needs, including college, are met is unrealistic (not nefarious, but would be a spoiler), and the idea that the experienced and reasonably worldly teacher had never been out of the state of Oregon seems a stretch.

At 85 minutes, “Apple Season” is certainly not overlong, but tightening some of its exchanges would enhance its pace. As it stands, however, it is an incisive slice of life, staged and especially acted in an impressive less-is-more naturalism. Accepting the rationality of Lissie’s final act requires major suspension of disbelief, but by then Ms. Bryan and the Misters Smith and Kent-Green have made it seem plausible.

Through Feb. 10 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch NJ. Performances Thurs & Fri. at 8PM; Sat. at 3 & 8; Sun. at 2PM. For tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org

 

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Take Someone to “The Prom” (Formal Wear Optional)

A couple kissing in front of Macy’s in Herald Square is hardly newsworthy, but one at last year’s Thanksgiving Day Parade actually marked a milestone in live TV – and was also a spoiler for a Broadway musical. Televised by NBC, “It’s Time to Dance,” the finalé number from “The Prom,” ended with two young women sharing a loving kiss.

So now you know how “The Prom” resolves. But any audience member who doubts that Indiana high schoolers Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) will end up together, are as heartless as the PTA folks who cancelled the prom because Emma wanted to bring Alyssa as her date. If that sounds like a serious topic, it is. But woven into the fabric of “The Prom,” it is the raison d’etre for the most upbeat, romantic and downright funny Broadway Musical in years.

From left: Christopher Sieber, Angie Schworer, Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas and Josh Lamon: “Changing Lives”

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Adventures in the Santa trade…

[Some of what follows was originally posted a few years ago. This holiday season, I invite new readers and returnees to share the memories.]

Like many a New York actor back in the day, I drove a cab, tended bar…the usual. Decembers meant playing Santa Claus at corporate and home parties. The most rewarding Santa gigs, however, were not for pay.

After Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the United States Senate from New York in 1964, he announced that in memory of his brother, the President who had been slain the previous year, he would host Christmas parties for New York City school children. I phoned his office to volunteer as Santa. Several days later they called me back to accept my offer. (I learned later that they had vetted me with the FBI, the NYPD and Actors Equity.)

The first event was at a school in Manhattan. (Succeeding parties were in the other boroughs.) Arriving at the appointed hour, I was met by a stern fellow with a squiggly ear wire who rifled through my suitcase before directing me to the faculty lounge. “The other acts are already there,” he said.

The other acts? How ‘bout Soupy Sales and Sammy Davis, Jr. I consented to share the dressing room. We drank coffee and plotted an act until it was time to go into the auditorium packed with kids. An aide introduced Senator-elect Kennedy, who introduced Soupy, who introduced Sammy, who introduced Santa Claus, who, um, got the biggest ovation.

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“ART” is in the eye of the beholder…

The term ‘bromance,’ referring to a close, non-sexual relationship between men, had not been coined when French playwright Yasmina Reza wrote “ART” in 1994, but a bromance fuels her play, which concludes its mini-run at Holmdel Theatre Company on December 16.

A fifteen-year friendship is sorely tested by the purchase of a white-on-white painting…for 200,000 francs*. Serge (Brian Craig) cherishes his monochromatic canvas – an Antrios, he boasts – which his friend Marc (Gabe Gatti) labels, almost too bluntly to simply state, “white shit.” A third friend, Yvan (Ankit Sharma) vacillates between praising Serge’s artistic instincts and agreeing with Marc’s scatological assessment. The three men and the inanimate Antrios comprise the cast of “ART.”

From left: Ankit Sharma, Brian Craig, Gabe Gatti

Beginning as relatively harmless bantering, the Serge-Marc discussion escalates into biting sarcasm, verbal hostility and even a brief physical altercation as the two dredge up grievances and resentments that had festered, unspoken, for years. Yvan attempts to mediate, an effort that succeeds only when the other two unite in attacking him.

Ostensibly about reactions to the painting, Ms. Reza’s insightful ninety-minute play, translated into smooth-flowing English by Christopher Hampton, is a three-way character study. Serge is a would-be dilettante who is swayed by the trendy artist’s reputation; Marc is overly self-confident and given to sarcasm; and Yvan, stuck in a dead-end job and facing a cheerless marriage, is emotionally needy. The three are inter-dependent, as even sparring comrades can be.

Brian Craig, left, and Gabe Gatti

Holmdel’s “ART” moves at brisk pace, but the full effect of its back-and-forth about art and relationships requires a lighter touch than is exhibited here. Put another way, while it certainly does not bore, it’s not as funny as it could/should be. Marc’s commentary on Serge and his Antrios progresses from witty sarcasm into outright hostility and anger within the first few minutes. Gatti plays the anger convincingly, but peaking so soon, the actor has little room for character development.

Yvan’s effort to keep the peace between the other two is based on his own need for the bond to hold. The three-man unit is his safe place, his only diversion from the frustrations that he contains until they burst from him in a 1300-word melt-down. Sharma is fidgety through it (and elsewhere), which distracts some, but the memorization is a feat unto itself, and he zips through it confidently.

Brian Craig and Ankit Sharma

Serge remains deceptively calm until his own grievances emerge, at which point Craig finds a balance between the man’s defensiveness and his anger. (Long-smoldering Serge’s derision of a supercilious habit of Marc’s girlfriend is brilliant writing.)

Joyce Horan’s serviceable set is “stripped down and neutral as possible,” as the playwright decreed, and we get the sense of whose apartment we are in by the presence or absence of the Antrios. Chris Szczerbienski’s lighting keeps focus where it should be, and Heather Thompson’s creative poster art (pun noted) deserves a mention.

Director Tyrone Henderson moves the play along efficiently, but mining its humor seems to have been a low priority. As amusing as it is at the most obvious points, one wishes the subtle humor were equally so.

The Antrios (I kinda like it. You?)

A brief epilogue reveals that the survival of the three-way friendship has hinged on an untruth told by Serge. Considering that the painting is but a prop in a play about mutual tolerance and consideration, the deception that preserves the bromance is just a white lie.

Through December 16 at Holmdel Theatre Company, 36 Crawfords Corner Road, Holmdel NJ. Fri/Sat Dec 14/15 at 8PM; Sun Dec 16 at 2PM. Tickets ($25; Seniors $20; students $15): www.holmdeltheatrecompany.org

*U.S. productions usually substitute a dollar figure for the 200,000 francs, which would have been about $40,000 in 1994, but the Euro replaced the franc in 2002. A 2010 production used $75,000, enough to constitute the dermatologist’s splurge and to raise his friend’s eyebrow.

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#AmericanSonMatters on Broadway

“American Son” premiered in 2016 at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts and was staged at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey in February 2017. In those recent years, its theme of racially-charged encounters between African-American males and law-enforcement officers reflected the burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Now, Christopher Demos-Brown’s cautionary tale has opened on Broadway, and what a difference a year makes. Or not.

The title character, eighteen-year-old Jamal, hovers over every minute of the emotionally intense tale, but does not appear in person. It is 4AM in the waiting room of a Miami police station, where Jamal’s mother Kendra has gone to report her son missing. Jamal had left home earlier that evening in his late-model Lexus, a gift from his father, and had not checked in or answered his phone. Mom is deeply concerned, a state of mind made clear by Kerry Washington’s Kendra before she speaks a word.

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale [Photos: Peter Cunningham]

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“Holiday Inn” Open For Business At Paper Mill Playhouse

The musical now officially titled “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is based on the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn,” which was updated on screen as “White Christmas” in 1954, which in turn was adapted into a stage musical (“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”) in 2000, with Broadway stints in 2008 and ’09. This latest one, “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” premiered regionally in 2014 and had its own Broadway engagement over the 2016 holiday season.

Did you follow that? No matter; just know that Berlin’s immortal “White Christmas” is sung in all of them. The show remains popular thanks to its score (in two meanings) of Irving Berlin songs, for which he composed both music and lyrics. “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is running through December 30 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.

Let’s put on a show! [Photos courtesy Paper Mill Playhouse]

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