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Saturday, August 1, 2015



By Ruth Ross

As I have written for the umpteen years I have been reviewing this production, if it's summer, it's time for the Chatham Community Players' Jersey Voices. And as he has done since 2003, producer Bob Lukasik likened the festival of one-act plays written by New Jersey authors to the box of chocolates mentioned in Forrest Gump: "You never know what you'll get." Most years, the selections from the Jersey Voices box of chocolates has been uneven, with some plays that worked, others that decidedly did not and some that were so-so.

Culled from over 100 submissions, this year's offerings really—to mix metaphors—knock the ball out of the ballpark. From beginning to end, the six playlets and one dance production were well crafter, well acted and very affecting. As one audience member noted during the opening night talk-back, the underlying (albeit perhaps unintentional) theme seemed to be one of secrets withheld and truths revealed, told with poignancy and tenderness. Altogether, they reminded us of the power that theater—good theater—can have on an audience.

The 2015 selections were so interesting that it is difficult to choose a favorite. The evening started with a bang with Karen Howes' Gentleman's Pact (directed by Lynn Polan) in which two university professors, Bill (English) and Arthur (political science) try to resolve the upheaval engendered by Bill's startling announcement that he wants to marry Arthur's wife Evelyn. The hilarious negotiating is upended by Evelyn, whose arrival throws a damp towel on the proposition as she deftly turns the tables on the two men. Orin Tempkin as an earnestly clueless as Bill, Howard Fischer as an avuncular, yet calculating, Arthur, and Elizabeth Royce as the no-nonsense Evelyn deliver Howe's clever dialogue convincingly and with great comedic timing. Lynn Polan directs with a light but steady hand, keeping the suspense building in this well-constructed play.

Walter H. Placzek's A Love Story is a tender examination of filial love, as related by Bob Grundfest as the pest exterminator Alfred Butler and acted by Jean Ruda Habrukowich as nursing home resident Mrs. Palmer and Colleen Grundfest as her grown daughter Gretchen. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that it has to do with a lie told—and accepted—for loving reasons. Placzek has written affecting dialogue and Arnold J. Buchiane directs very well, but the two women deliver their lines in a less than natural manner and sound rehearsed. Perhaps as the production's run proceeds, they will get more comfortable and sound more genuine. Nevertheless, the plot is believable and the premise charming.

The highlight of the first act is the hilarious examination of prenuptial counseling, The Holy Grill, written by Gary Shaffer and Directed with Scott Baird. The priestly interrogation of a young groom and bride-to-be is completely upended when two retired detectives substitute for the very busy priest and proceed to turn a gentle meeting into something straight out of a television police procedural! Jackie Jacoby and Dan Malloy are perfect as the young couple, he extremely nervous that he'll give an answer that will telegraph sin, she more concerned about him. Arlene Britt is a very officious Mrs. Reilly, secretary to the priest; she bustles in an out efficiently. But Lewis T. Decker and Victor Gallo bring down the house in their stereotypical depiction of tough cops, ready to do anything (and everything) to a confession out of a couple of perps. The surprise ending will leave you reeling and talking about it during intermission. (L-R: Gallo, Jacobi, Decker, Malloy)

The plot of the fourth playlet is perfectly encapsulated in the title, Two Perfect Strangers Meet at the Jet Lag Café. Written by Ralph Greco, Jr., and directed by Kevern Cameron, it involves a chance encounter between Suitor, a nosy, gay American ex-pat. and Jack Johns, a would-be writer accompanying his executive wife on a business trip to Paris. Over the course of a quarter of an hour, the two strangers share confidences, safe in knowing that the stranger listening will never blab about it to anyone else; indeed, the two will probably never meet again so the secrets are safe. While the revelations are not very earth-shaking (or juicy), they are poignant and rather bittersweet. Arnold J. Buchiane (left) is superb as Suitor, a character whose outré flamboyance barely masks regret; Chip Prestera (right) is equally as fine as Jack, kind of moseying through life in a "muted" fashion. Revealing his "secret" is perhaps the most honest thing Jack has ever done. The whole effect is stunning. Kevern Cameron directs surely, without letting the whole encounter turn into something sensational.

Wendy - Brad and DebJohn Kennedy's brief Wendy furthers the effect of the previous play. It chronicles a late-night brief encounter between a young roller blader fixing his skate in an apartment hallway and the middle-aged woman he has awakened (or just attracted) by the noise. The two unnamed characters (played by Brad Carrington and a luminous Debbie Bernstein, right) bond over a shared Allen wrench; when he confesses a desire to go to San Francisco, she (looking much the aging flower child in a long white nightgown) tells him to watch the sunset from a particular rock under the Golden Gate Bridge. She reminds him of an album cover by the band It's a Beautiful Day, specifically one that depicts a woman in a white dress standing on a rock. Directed by Joann Lopresti Scanlon, the encounter feels ephemeral, yet significant, for both parties; we are left with a bittersweet taste of what might have been.

And rounding out the evening's dramatic productions is the terrifically sharp I Thought I Liked Girls, by Nicole Pandolfo and directed by Eric Holgerson. The play's premise stands the dilemma of coming out to one's parents on its ear. The plot details are best left untold, so as not to spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say that Mom and Dad's reaction to Lucy's revelation is not only hilarious but right on the money. Judy Laganga (right) and Steve Gabe (left) are splendid as the disappointed parents, delivering Pandolfo's witty dialogue with sure comedic timing. Julie Anne Nolan's Lucy (center) is appropriately earnest and sincere in wanting her parents' approval, but she has an uphill climb against these two pros. Nevertheless, she performs with aplomb.

Rodin DancersI have left Kimberly Jackson's dance piece Rodin in Movement for last, but not least. To the accompaniment of the cello-rock band Break of Reality, seven dancers (six women, one man), clothed in Grecian-looking clothes re-enact characters on Rodin's Gates of Hell sculpture: three Shades, Eve, Despair and the Prodigal Son. One other dancer portrays Rodin's iconic sculpture, The Thinker. The septet's sinuous, sensual movements, interrupted by awkward poses, mirror the anguish of the sculpted figures on Rodin's bronze doors; the fleeting, fluid movement around the performance space is really quite beautiful, and the final poses echo the opening positions, thus bringing us full circle in this tormented, hellish dance. Well done!

Well, the 2015 edition of Jersey Voices is quite a box of chocolates, indeed! The quality of this year's offerings—writing, directing and acting—was uniformly top-notch. This is one tradition I certainly do not miss. And neither should you.

Jersey Voices will be performed Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through August 8 at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham. For information and tickets call 973.635.7363 or visit online.  

Review by Ruth Ross

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