by Ruth RossI’d like to salute the Chatham Community Players, who are about to embark on their 101st season!
But I want to take my hat off to the same group for presenting Jersey Voices, their festival of one-act plays by New Jersey playwrights for 28 years! Not only is it a remarkable feat to produce such an event for over a quarter of a century but it attests to the troupe’s interest in presenting their audiences with sometimes audacious, often funny works by new playwrights, performed by talented actors, many of whom are making their CPP debut in the dog days of summer.
Indeed, on Saturday, July 30, the night I attended, there wasn’t an empty seat in the intimate black-box Chatham Playhouse—such is the draw of this annual event!
Often, the seven 10-minute plays are a mixed bag, but this year, all seven are winners.
The evening opens with The Elusive Pursuit of Maximum Bliss (by Ken Preuss, directed by Amanda Marino), which taps into our present pre-occupation with happiness. The plot involves a wealthy man (Peter Despres as Max) and a female researcher (Alyssa Fox as Amanda) explore multiple timelines to seek the feasibility of 100% happiness. There’s some nifty business whereby Amanda calls forth on computer screens images of Max every time he made a choice—millions from different timelines showing divergent lives—to help Max discover what is missing in his life. The two actors spoke very softly at first, as if they were conversing alone, without an audience; as the play progressed, their voices got louder. Fox was appropriately officious as the researcher; Despres’s Max was at sea, seeking 100% bliss, if that even exists. The two-hander got the evening off to a great start.
What followed was a one-woman playlet entitled Wing Man (by Mary Jane Walsh, directed by Joann Lopresti Scanlon, assisted by Eleanor Anderson). A woman discovers a giant, brightly colored parrot (“straight from the Crayola box”) named Pete has flown into her apartment. Becoming friends, he sits on her shoulder, and she takes him into bars as an icebreaker and conversation starter. As a middle-aged Woman, Colleen Grundfest conveys the woman’s offbeat personality very well and impersonates Pete through her body language and voice. The premise is wacky, but Grundfest (and Scanlon) makes it entirely believable. We almost expect Pete to fly down from the Chatham Playhouse rafters!
The third offering is equally as offbeat, albeit in a quieter way. Singing Woman (by G. David Post, directed by Lauri MacMillan) poses the question: If you told a stranger at a bus stop you were being haunted, would you be ready to hear the truth? Carlysle (Chip Prestera) complains of being kept awake every night by a woman’s voice, singing the same song every night. Dawson (Joelle Bochner) suggests that her friend is being haunted by someone who loves him. The two actors act as though this situation is entirely normal; only toward the end do we realize that both are dead.
Rounding out Act I is Kidneys (by Devon Villacampa, directed by Steve Ruskin) Two college students come to the University Financial Aid office when their money gets cut. A very officious, pushy Miss Bezzle (Jessica Phelan) informs them that, to get emergency funds to continue their education, each will have to donate a kidney! A bit of a doofus, Spencer Scalamoni’s Dane doesn’t quite understand the deal; when the light goes in his brain, he cowers in fear. Felicia (Jenny Vecchione) is fierce, feisty; she chases Miss Bezzle, and what sounds like a fight ensues. Will the kids get their funds one way or another? You’ll have to see it to find out.
Act II features three more one-act plays. The first, Open Door (by Susan Brown-Peitz, directed by Sarah DeVizio), is set in a veterinarian’s waiting room where an unexpected conversation about grief and hope occurs. A morose, depressed, grieving young man (Ray, played by Peter Despres) has brought in his late mother’s cat to be euthanized. This idea enrages Stella (Jackie Kuczinzki) who has come to be interviewed for a job as a vet assistant. She offers to take the cat, but Ray refuses. As the two get to know each other, each character opens up, leading to a hopeful denouement. Despres is maddening in his rejection of Kuczinzki’s offer to take the cat. She is adorably attractive, but will she melt his hard resolve?
The Grape Nerds Reunion (by Alli Hartley-Kong, directed by Sarah Pharaon) features two classmates at their high school reunion, connected by a past one of them can’t remember, explore the impact of choices they've made—both big and small. Mike (Anthony Bentrovato) has suffered a traumatic brain injury and doesn’t remember much of his past. Talking to Alyssa (Ali Archetti), he recalls bits and pieces, but they evidently had a past relationship, one that is especially important to her. Both actors shine in this bittersweet, poignant playlet.
The final play, Never More Lenore (by G. David Post, directed by John A.C. Kennedy), is the most hilarious of the septet. Facing the loss of their assistant from vacation, Ed (Jason Kruk) has hired a crazed-looking temp named Lenore (Anne Borzner). He and Mark (Chip Prestera) are taken aback by her propensity to rhyme in words reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.” As the minutes pass, Kruk’s Ed becomes more unhinged, haunted by “this thing called Poe.” Prestera’s Mark is better at maintaining his equanimity, even finding the whole thing rather droll, and Lenore acts as though nothing’s wrong. The audience roared with laughter on Saturday night, providing a fitting end to 2022’s version of Jersey Voices. I’ve often written that “if it’s summer, it must be time for Jersey Voices.” Each year, for two weekends, Chatham Community Players gives us the gift of one-act plays written by New Jersey playwrights. It’s an evening not to be missed!
Jersey Voices will be performed through August 7 at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham. For information and tickets, call 973-635-7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.