By Ruth Ross
Some drama reviews are difficult to write. Often, one aspect of a theatrical production may be praiseworthy while others may be less (sometimes, far less) successful. In such cases, a review becomes a balancing act: how to critique the production fairly and constructively without trashing it outright.
Conversely, some reviews are easy to write. This is especially true when all aspects of a production come together to create an organic piece of theater, one where the actors live and breathe the characters they portray, where life feels actually re-created onstage and fine writing illuminates the world for us in a way we’ve never experienced before. That’s a tall order for a theater company, but when it happens, magic occurs.
For 22 summers, the Chatham Community Players have presented Jersey Voices, their festival of one-act plays by New Jersey playwrights. What makes this season so praiseworthy is the uniform high quality of the scripts, direction and acting. Often, out of the six entries, I have a favorite or two, but this year, all six blew me away.
The evening starts with Knock Out¸ a charming slice of life penned by G. David Post and directed by John A.C. Kennedy, wherein three thirty-something young women meet for an annual dinner, this time in a restaurant that features a trio of joke-telling waiters. Amid groans over their bad “knock-knock” jokes (many of them told with relish by the ever-versatile Chip Prestera (aided and abetted by Matt McCarthy and Howard Fischer). Whether Mary Morlino, Elissa Strell or Julie Anne Nolan finds love in this wacky environment is an open question at the ends, but it looks promising for Strell, whose sharp sarcasm marks her as a smart cookie.
In contrast, the relationship between a young man and an old bag lady is examined in Dianna A. Lewis’s Badger & Maddy directed by Arnold J. Buchiane. The playlet feels a tad long, but the mismatched pair (played by Donald Calliste and Diane Gilch, respectively) are always engaging. Garrulous free-spirit senior citizen Maddy may be homeless, but she sure has her act together. As she extends a hand to the taciturn, morose, lost Badger, we are left with hope that the young man will one day be as confident as she. Gilch has the funnier bits, especially related to her attire and plans for the evening.
Reverse Order, by Eric Alter and directed by George Seylaz is reminiscent of those commercials where everyone says what he/she things. Instead of their blind date going from revealing their best to baring their darkest secrets, Gordon (Howard Fischer) and Renee (Judy Laganga) work in reverse, much to our merriment! Gordon’s secrets are especially droll; Renee’s outrage at learning about them is equally as funny. Popping in to check up on the couple and patting Gordon on the shoulder in encouragement is Julie Anne Nolan as an annoying waitress. Alter et al sure give us an interesting slant on the progression of a blind date.
A high spot of the evening is provided by Robert Scott Sullivan, playwright of A Dog’s Life, and directed by Joann Lopresti Scanlon (with assistance from Eleanor Anderson). Sullivan must talk “dog,” for he sure gets into pooch RJ’s mind, with his spot-on dialogue and oh, so doggish actions. Just watching Matt McCarthy’s RJ turn around several times clockwise and counter-clockwise before lying at his mistress’s feet, will have you in stitches! That Jessica Phelan’s Billie faces a dilemma regarding her pet is revealed late in the action; it’s all the more poignant because we’ve already fallen head-over-heels in love with RJ.
Hair, Shoes, Coffee by Eleanor Kennedy and directed by Dawn Afanador is even less than a slice of life. This sliver happens so fast that we are left breathless when it ends. A robotic Doris (Gianna Esposito, left) ticks off a mantra of lists as a way to keep herself ready to face magic Monday. It takes the warmer Frank (Dominick J. DeNucci) to unexpectedly derail her. much to her surprise—and ours!
And finally, Walter H. Placzek’s Zarg (directed by Lynn Polan) provides a moving finale to the dramatic evening. Courtesy of the Make a Wish Foundation, wheelchair-bound Alison Watford (Lily Bauer) meets her idol, Carolyn Carpenter (Mary Jo Oakley), the aging star of a once-popular series of sci-fi films set on the planet Zarg, now confined to a wheelchair herself. As the two terminally ill Zarg enthusiasts get to know each other, their caregivers (Christine Talarico as daughter Janet and Dominick J. DeNucci as Alison’s father David) connect over their shared situation in a bittersweet mating dance that expresses both reverence for their charges’ Zarg obsession and the possibility of hope for themselves.
What makes Jersey Voices so special is the focus on the drama and comedy; eschewing complex sets, the troupe manages six times to create entire worlds for us with nothing more than a couple of tables and chairs and a bunch of props. Marry that to superior scripts performed by talented actors under sure-handed direction, and you’ve got a successful festival of one-act plays.
I’ve often written that “if it’s summer, it must be Jersey Voices (and vice versa)” and once again, the Chatham Community Players don’t disappoint. You won’t want to miss this year’s offering of plays written by New Jersey playwrights. We sure do have great talent here in the Garden State!
Jersey Voices bill be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through August 6th. For information and tickets, call 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.
Photographs by Jill Fischer.