By Ruth Ross
One of the joys of summer theater is Jersey Voices, the festival of one-act plays by New Jersey playwrights produced for the last 23 years by the venerable Chatham Community Players. Always interesting, sometimes uneven, the series is a fine representative of community theater in the Garden State.
In its 24th outing, this year’s Jersey Voices is collectively one of the finest productions of the series I’ve been reviewing since 1996. This year’s seven plays are all tightly plotted, beautifully acted and deftly directed, for a satisfying and enlightening evening of theater.
The two most powerful of the group, The Rub of the Green and Foster, are poignant examinations of loss. The former, written by Tom Tunnington and directed by Elizabeth Rogers, involves a “meeting” between Pop, an aging veteran, and the ghost of his forever-young soldier buddy Dusty at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. Howard Fischer’s Pop suffers from survivor’s guilt; despite his successful life, he feels as though he’s “cheated” just by living (The title is a golf reference meaning “any accidental or unpredictable influence on the course or position of the ball.”) Fischer conveys great sadness and loss, while Bradley Carrington exudes youthful spirit. It’s a touching exploration of the unintended consequences of survival.
Written by Jerrod Bogard and directed by Joann Lopresti Scanlon, Foster involves another kind of loss, in this case abandonment of a foster child who has lived with Jen (Melinda DelPizzo) and Duane (Derek Simmons) for five years. Jen’s worried about the safety of her newborn daughter while Duane feels conflicted “returning” the boy he considers to be his son. Jean Kuras is officious as the social worker Carla. Like life, this plot doesn’t tie up neatly.
Romance is the subject of Bug Rescuing and Romance 101, two rather droll studies of what it means to find love. Masterfully acted by Jackie Jacobi (Joan) and Matt McCarthy (Michael), Judy Klass’s Bug Rescuing focuses on a seemingly mismatched couple—he, an extrovert; she, an introvert more interested in rescuing bugs than interacting with people. Under Lauri MacMillan’s tight direction, the two characters each attempt to convince the other that they should/shouldn’t be together. Their discovery that they both love O. Henry’s classic story “The Last Leaf” is a touching reminder that even the most seemingly incompatible couple can find commonality. It’s an optimistic idea in a world full of pessimism.
Romance 101 is funnier, but equally as affecting. In this playlet written by Brianna Keller and directed by George Seylaz, a young man (Travis, played by Bradley Carrington) in search of ways to romance women wanders into a romance book club populated by a motley crew of women, young and old, married and not. He makes cogent comments about the book in question; they mostly want to bitch about their lives. Colleen Grundfest is fine as the bossy leader Patti (left); Sharon Quinn (far right) is a stitch as the mostly sleeping Gladys; Julie Ann Nolan (second from left) is appropriately obnoxious as newly engaged Meredith who brags about her ring and fiancé’s wealth. But it’s Jessica Phelan’s Sally who has the wherewithal to welcome Travis and connect with him.
Romance may not be on the mind of the two characters in Tom Baum’s Free Pass (directed by Arnold Buchiane), but the connection they make is sweet and hopeful. Approaching the more polished Tara (played with great élan by Cheryl Sarkaria), Gordon Wiener’s Waylon, out on his own despite being married (no spoilers), is appropriately awkward. That the assumptions he makes about her turn out to be wrong make for a very satisfying, and surprise, ending!
The funniest plays are The King and Squirrel Tames Human. The former, written by Nicole Pandolfo and directed by Steve Ruskin, involves an Elvis Presley impersonator’s encounter with a man who may be the real deal. Standing in for Dominick DeNucci in the performance I attended, Chip Prestera ably conveyed the desperation of a wannabe who’s about to be upstaged by his idol. Jeff Maschi employs Elvis’ deep voice and swagger, even if he doesn’t really resemble The King. Cute, but slight, the playlet is a study in hero worship.
Hilariously rounding out the evening, Squirrel Tames Human, written by Luigi Jannuzzi and directed by Kevern Cameron, is a silly look at humanity from the point of view of two squirrels. Played with aplomb, Chip Prestera’s older squirrel Chip attempts to educate the younger rodent Junior (Paula Ehrenberg) in the way to get human beings to do what he wants them to do: feed him. Prestera’s lesson is laced with comical advice, most of it absurd. His comedic skills are on full display here. Ehrenberg’s naiveté stands in stark contrast to the more experienced Chip, producing an entertaining repartee between the two.
Once again, we are reminded that the power of theater doesn’t dependon elaborate sets and costumes; the words and delivery transcend such window dressing. That said, Steve Stubelt’s atmospheric lighting and Joe DeVico’s sound (especially the music appropriate for each play) greatly enhance the evening’s proceedings.
This edition of Chatham Players’ Jersey Voices offers a fine evening of theater. If you love one-act plays finely acted, you won’t want to miss it.
Jersey Voices runs through August 5 at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham. For performance information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.ChathamPlayers.org online.