Saturday, April 7, 2018

“Back Channel” Offers Timely Look at How the World Almost Ended

Back Channel
by Joseph Vitale

WHEN: April 13-15, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM.
WHERE: Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Rd, Maplewood
TICKETS: available at the box office, by calling (908) 809-8865 or by visiting

It was the darkest hour of the Cold War. The U.S. and Soviet Union were eyeball to eyeball over the Cuban Missile Crisis, and with the two sides refusing to budge, the world faced Armageddon. Churches were filled, supermarket shelves picked clean, fallout shelters were prepared and school children taught to “duck and cover.”

“I was 10 years old and convinced I was going to die,” said playwright Joseph Vitale, author of Murrow, which premiered at The Theater Project in 2015 and ran Off-Off Broadway in 2016. “This play focuses not on the names we know – Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro – but on two obscure men who history may have forgotten, but who may have had more to do with saving the world than anyone knows. With today’s fears of a possible nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea and alleged secret dealings between the U.S. and Russia, the play seems eerily timely.”

Back Channel recounts the meetings between ABC-TV newsman John Scali and KGB spy Alexander Feklisov in the old Occidental Grill on Pennsylvania Avenue during the fateful week in October 1962 when Kennedy announced he was blockading Cuba. The two men had known each other for a few months, but now their governments had sent them on a clandestine mission. Out of the glare of the media, Scali and Feklisov tried to work out a deal. But was each man who he said he was? With the fate of the world at stake and the clock ticking, could they learn to trust one another? And, most importantly, would they have enough time?

“It’s easy to forget that, with so many nations still possessing nuclear weapons, we’re still just one crisis or miscalculation away from catastrophe,” said Mark Spina, artistic director of The Theater Project. “Back Channel reminds us of that, but also shows us, through the characters of Scali and Feklisov, that human beings still have the power to determine their destiny – that is, as long as we continue to see one another as just that: fellow human beings.”

The 90-minute play features Jack Coggins as Scali; Alexander Carney as Feklisov and Eli Ganias as George, the Occidental Grill waiter who serves the American and the Russian during their lunches and provides running commentary on what is happening in the news.

In addition to Back Channel and Murrow, Vitale has written a number of full-length and one-act plays that have been performed at The Theater Project and at theaters in New York, California, and Indiana. In 2012, he was a semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater/National Playwrights Conference. He is a member of The Theater Project’s playwrights workshop and the Dramatists Guild of America.

The play is directed by Bob Angelini, former artistic director of the ReVision Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ. He has worked in theater, both as an actor and director, for over 30 years. His awards include Best Director/Drama for The Laramie Project (Count Basie Award, NJ) and Best Director/Musical for Cats (Count Basie Award, NJ). Angelini is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society in NYC.

"Despite the political aspects, the essence of Back Channel is human,” said Angelini. “Two men from opposite sides have to learn to trust one another. They can’t work out anything until they do that. We’re also going to set the mood by recreating the period through visuals and music. We’re going to take everyone back to 1962 where the march toward nuclear war was interrupted in a most unusual way.”

The Theater Project is committed to bringing audiences works built around compelling social issues. Past productions include Vitale’s Murrow, which dealt with the role of the news media in our society; Guardians, which addressed events similar to those that occurred at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison; and Bury the Dead, which confronted the ethics of war and individual responsibility.

As with those earlier productions, each performance of Back Channel will be followed by an audience discussion featuring the playwright, director, cast and a scholar or writer who will speak about U.S.-Soviet relations, the Cold War, nuclear policy, and how today’s geopolitical situation compares with the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Madelyn Hoffman, executive director of NJ Peace Action, will be the facilitator for the discussions.