Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney on April 26, 2014
There's an old saying in the theater that “good plays are not just written – but rewritten.” That axiom is sure to hold true for two new shows on Jersey stages this week, each at a different phase of their all-important development process.
The state's most valuable resource in introducing new plays is undoubtedly Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company. This cultural gem at the Jersey shore is currently offering up the world premiere of A VIEW OF THE MOUNTAINS by Lee Blessing. While many NJ Rep playwrights are new writers, Blessing is a veteran. His most famous play, A WALK IN THE WOODS, was nominated for a 1989 Tony Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. MOUNTAINS is not exactly a sequel to WOODS, but it does continue the story of one of its characters, Reagan-era arms negotiator John Honeyman.
We catch up with Honeyman (John Little) just before a big national election. A right-wing Presidential candidate is about to nominate a conservative Tennessee senator as his running mate. It just so happens that the senator, Will Branch (John Zlabinger), is also his estranged son. Liberal Honeyman will stop at nothing to stem the Republican tide, including the possibility of blackmailing his son with a long-buried family secret. He invites Branch to his wife Ilsa's (Katrina Ferguson) Catskills estate to make him an offer he surely can't refuse. Branch brings along his scheming wife Gwynn (Eva Kaminsky) for support and security - literally.
The premise of MOUNTAINS has great potential for political and familial fireworks. But director Evan Bergman often allows the play to devolve into Jerry Springer-like antics. The main cause for derailment is the character of Gwynn; an offensive, shrieking, shrew who immediately frisks her hosts with a metal detector and then confiscates the refreshments to test for poisons. She verbally assaults her in-laws with a barrage of outrageous remarks that would cause any reasonable person to show her the door, if not the back of their hand. The character might have been reminiscent of Claire Underwood of TV's “House of Cards” - an iron fist in a velvet glove.
But Bergman and Kaminsky take a less subtle route, one that has audiences rooting for her to be thrown off the nearest Catskill mountain. Her disruptive shenanigans take precious time away from the far more interesting father/son – and later husband/wife – dynamics. When the 70-minute play briefly concentrates on these relationships, it shows promise – especially in scenes involving Ferguson, one of New Jersey's busiest actresses, who is terrific as Ilsa.
But let's remember that this play is still in its infancy and infants are sometimes messy, frequently loud, and often behave inappropriately. Under strong 'parental' guidance from Blessing, MOUNTAINS may indeed grow into something respectable, if not quite remarkable.
At New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and will run through May 25, 2104. For tickets, contact the NJ Rep Box Office at 732-229-3166 or visit www.njrep.org.
A child at a much later stage of maturity is American Theater Group's new musical MARRY HARRY,which is enjoying a superb New Jersey premiere at the pristine Hamilton Stage in Rahway, a new venue of the Union County Performing Arts Center.
As the title might suggest, MARRY HARRY is an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story. Set in New York City today, the musical follows Little Harry (Howie Michael Smith) who works at his dad Big Harry's (Danny Rutigliano) failing restaurant while secretly hoping to land a coveted job with celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich. In the meantime, he falls in love-at-first-sight with recently jilted Sherri (Jillian Louis), whose doting mom Francine (April Woodall) is the restaurant's landlord. In addition to money woes, Big Harry also has relationship issues with long-term girlfriend and business partner Debby (Michele Ragusa). Before you can say 'homemade biscotti' Little Harry and Sherri are hastily headed for the altar. Complications ensue, naturally.
The tuneful new score by Dan Martin and Michael Biello is a lot like the aforementioned biscotti – sweet, satisfying and easily digested. If all this sounds terribly conventional – it is. Delightfully so! Book writer Jennifer Robbins inserts a modern sensibility, but it is really the uniformly excellent cast that grounds MARRY HARRY and keeps it consistently entertaining.
Director Kent Nicholson never forgets that the most important ingredient in this character-driven show is chemistry and toward that end he has assembled a first rate cast. Howie Michael Smith and Jillian Louis are bright and attractive nearly thirty-somethings – just as delightful to watch fall 'head over heals' as they are to listen to when they sing about it. As Big Harry and Debby, Danny Rutigliano and Michele Ragusa match them witty word for word and notable note for note. There isn't a finer musical theater character actress than Ragusa, who infuses every moment with expert comic timing and nuance.
It's obvious that the development process has fine-tuned MARRY HARRY, an old-fashioned musical about falling in love. The result is a heart-felt love letter to musical comedy. Performances continue through May 11 at Hamilton Stage in Rahway.