Five Irish sisters and a Chinese family on New Jersey stages

Playwright Bran Friel has been called “the Irish Chekhov.” (Friel died in 2015 at 86.)  Like the plays of that century-earlier Russian author, Friel’s are character-driven rather than story-driven, with an emphasis on family relationships. Friel’s best-known, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” is no exception. Centering as it does on five Irish sisters, the 1992 Tony and Olivier Award-winning play recalls Chekhov in more than just the number of sisters. “Lughnasa” is lighter than Chekhovian in tone, but no less sparing of realities that challenge and in some cases overwhelm the characters.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” bares the souls of the five unmarried Mundy sisters in County Donegal in the summer of 1936, filtered through the memory of Michael (Harry Smith) the grown “love child” of one of the sisters. Michael’s narration weaves through the play, introducing some segments, clarifying others and revealing heart-rending developments in a disconcertingly casual manner that nonetheless adds emotional heft.

Playing the Mundy sisters of Donegal (from left): Mandy Siegfried, Mylinda Hull, Megan Byrne, Meredith Garretson, Christa Scott-Reed

Kate (Megan Byrne), the eldest and default matriarch, teaches school; unsettled Agnes (Christa Scott-Reed) and the sweet, childlike youngest, Rose (Mandy Siegfried), hand-knit gloves for sale in the town. Together with deeply yearning Maggie (Mylinda Hull) and Michael’s unsettled mother Chris (Meredith Garretson), they care for their brother Jack (Michael Cumpsty), a Jesuit returned from a twenty-five year ministry in a Ugandan leper colony. There’s also Michael at age seven, unseen even as addressed by the others, and voiced by Smith from off to the side. (The Friel-mandated device works perfectly.)

Michael Cumpsty and Christa Scott-Reed [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

The Two River cast, which also includes Cillian O’Sullivan as Chris’s itinerant paramour and Michael’s father, functions as a unit. On designer Tobin Ost’s finely detailed set and aided by Jason Lyons’ mood-enhancing lighting, Jessica Stone’s sensitive direction shifts and isolates emphasis among the sisters in sync with the playwright.

Cillian O’Sullivan and Meredith Garretson

While we see enacted much of what Michael is remembering, it is almost as if it were our own memories playing out. The actual events, the particular sisters, are not our recollections, but Friel’s play affirms that some memories “owe nothing to fact” and that often, “atmosphere is more real than incident, and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.”

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is an atmospheric play that blends reality and illusion. Two River’s exceptional production will linger in memory.

         Through May 13 at Two River Theater, Red Bank NJ. Performances Wed at 1pm and 7pm; Thurs and Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3pm. Tickets ($40-$70): 732-345-1400 or at www.tworivertheater.org


If good intentions were all, “Issei, He Say (or the Myth of the First)” would win a Pulitzer Prize. Chloé Hung’s play (her second written), world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, is a discourse on an admittedly sore topic, but one deserving of more nuanced treatment than the play offers.

That topic is the internment of Japanese people during World War II, despite their long-established residence and even citizenship in – wait for it – Canada. (Long aware of that odious history in the United States, I had not known of it north of the border.)

The play’s POV is that of thirteen-year-old Lucy Chu (Christina Liang), whose family (Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li play her parents) had emigrated from China to a Toronto suburb – not, the point is made, to that city’s Chinatown. Their Japanese next-door neighbor, Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) had been interned during the war. (The time-set seems earlier than its designated 1969.)

          Christina Liang (in window), Stan Igi (foreground), Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li [Photo: SuzAnne Barabas]

         The first act establishes schoolgirl Lucy’s assimilation, her mother’s attempts at same and her father’s hostility toward the congenial neighbor. But for dad’s intransigence, it is, in fact, a rather endearing forty minutes, with Lucy and mom getting on very well with Mr. Y in their shared front yard (rendered perfectly by designer Jessica Parks).

Alas, the second act (also forty minutes) devolves into a formula sermon: establish the problem (well-founded resentment); take a side; state your case (twice maybe); and seque to a sentimental wrap-up.

No one would suggest that separating families and shoving people into virtual prisons based on their ethnicity is anything but barbaric. Well- acted by all four and directed smoothly by Lisa James (references more to first-act than second) “Issei, He Say” makes that point – loud, clear and in ABC fashion.

Through May 20 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs and Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 2pm. Tickets ($46): 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org

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NJ Community group has a successful go at “Much Ado About Nothing”

When I commented to Holmdel Theatre Company’s  “Much Ado About Nothing” producer that I did not recognize any cast names (except hers) from prior community productions, she explained that many of the ‘usual suspects’ shun Shakespeare auditions. Rehearsal periods are usually longer by a week or more, as well as by hours, and memorization can be a tough go for people with families and day-jobs. It’s not that they’re scared of the material, just leery of the commitment.

Conversely, some candidates show up because it is Shakespeare.  While mostly New Jersey based, a majority of the cast (of 17) are Holmdel first-timers. Others are area high school students, a talent source that the Company accesses regularly (to their credit). “Much Ado About Nothing” is not the easiest Shakespearean comedy to bring off successfully. It’s not fanciful like “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or joked-up like “A Comedy of Errors.”  Unlike those, “Much Ado” doesn’t wear its comedy on its sleeve. It has an unrepentant villain and serious obstacles to its happy ending.

The cast of Holmdel Theatre Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

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Don’t get shut out at the gate: put your money on “The Sting”

What do you look for in a musical? Songs and singers that make you glad you have ears? Multi-style choreography and dancers adept at every one of them? How ‘bout a plot that freezes your attention through every scene.  And finally, a charismatic leading man heading up a cast that seems to be enjoying their work as much as you are enjoying them at it.  ‘If only,’ you say? Well “The Sting” is that musical. (And Harry Connick, Jr. is that star.)

The adaptation of the 1973 Oscar-winning movie is World Premiering at Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey through April 29, and anyone that doubts it is headed for Broadway is reminded that ”Newsies,” “The Bronx Tale” and “Bandstand,” among others, began at Paper Mill. In gambling lingo, “The Sting” is a lock to make that leap.

And gambling lingo is more than appropriate. For those who have not seen “The Sting,” in a cinema or on TCM, it is set in 1936 Chicago, where two con men are putting a “sting” on NYC high-roller Doyle Lonnegan after he has one of their pals killed. The flick was – and remains – notable for the performances of Paul Newman and Robert Redford and for the use of Scott Joplin’s ragtime music in setting the scenes. There is, in fact, an overall musical sensibility to the movie. What took so long?

Harry Connick, Jr., center, in the faux betting parlor where The Sting unfolds.

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Some other Damon Runyon guys and dolls in “Three Wise Guys”

I am sitting in Jersey Mike’s eating a mini number seven sub when I hear that Stephanie “Stormy” Clifford is suing Donald “Grab ‘Em” Trump.

That sentence is in the present tense, but you can tell it was in the past, right? Context makes it clear, but it is deceptive; writing in the “historical present” does not come easy. Every sentence is a challenge. No writer ever mastered that voice better than did Damon Runyon, to great effect and with absolute clarity. The form takes on a sort of formality, with virtually all dialogue in complete sentences and a near-total absence of contractions (nary a don’t for do not). The argot is known, in fact, as Runyonesque.

Born in 1884, Runyon was a transplanted Kansan who became a sportswriter (for the New York American) after serving in the Spanish-American war, and then a First World War correspondent and columnist for Hearst. He also wrote poetry and in assorted prose forms before zeroing in on the short story. He died in 1946.

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Escape to – or from – Margaritaville: It’s a tossup

In order to enjoy a jukebox musical, it helps to be a fan of the songbook going in, but that’s no guarantee.  ABBA-adoring fans kept “Mamma Mia” running for years on its easily replicated disco score, even with its silly book (story). “Ring of Fire,” on the other hand, bombed, despite its 38 songs associated with Johnny Cash, largely because that show lacked the one ingredient that made those 38 numbers memorable: Johnny Cash. And “Lennon,” featuring John’s music and interview excerpts, opened and closed in six weeks. (Investors in a Lennon bio-musical with a faux fab four must have needed a tax loss.) “Jersey Boys” is an exception to received wisdom; the insider tale of the music industry is well-crafted, with Four Seasons songs for exclamation points.

“Escape to Margaritaville,” which opened last week at the Marquis Theatre in Times Square, is a buffet of twenty-five Jimmy Buffett songs (he wrote both music and lyrics) performed over two acts within a formula romcom about a Caribbean island romance. In tried and true fashion, our leading couple meets cute, hooks up, splits up, and reunites just in time for a curtain call (whew). There’s also the traditional couple number two, who end up together after she sheds her boorish fiancé who guilts her about her weight, which, btw, is normal-range attractive and strong enough to finally deck the loser-guy (to much applause).

Paul Alexander Nolan and the cast of “Escape To Margaritaville” [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

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Group Therapy off-Broadway: “Good for Otto”

Another fourth wall bites the dust in The New Group’s production of “Good for Otto,” at the Pershing Square Signature Center. David Rabe’s play, which premiered in 2015 at Chicago’s Gift Theatre, is not set in Grover’s Corners, but, we are told as the cast files into stage-perimeter seats, in the Berkshires town of Harrington, where our host, Dr. Robert Michaels (Ed Harris), is a counselor and chief administrator at Norwood Mental Health Center.

The play that follows (after a group hum) takes place in the Center’s offices and treatment rooms and in Dr. Michaels’ haunted memory bank. Acted by a superb 15-member ensemble, directed by New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott and overlong by just a few minutes at three hours, including intermission, “Good for Otto” is fascinating Theatre.

Ed Harris, pitchpipe at the ready, and the cast of “Good for Otto” [Photos: Monique Carboni]

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