Is there any city in the world that has as many theaters per capita as New Brunswick, New Jersey?
The place sports a population of 54,000-plus in fewer than six square miles. And yet, in the center of town are not one, not two but THREE legitimate theaters – meaning one for every 18,000 people.
One of those houses is The State Theatre, which admittedly plays host to concerts more than musicals; still, touring productions of CABARET, SISTER ACT, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, SEUSSICAL and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST are some of the bus-and-trucks that have played there for a few Fridays, Saturdays and/or Sundays.
More often, however, there’s live theater to the right at the George Street Playhouse, which nestles to the left of the Crossroads Theatre Company. At the moment, both theaters are lit with new plays that hope to make the 37-mile journey from Exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 16E and through the Lincoln Tunnel.
Frankly, David Rush’s NUREYEV’S EYES is the less likely to make the trip. Oh, it might get there because producers l-o-v-e one-set, two character plays.
Make that two-SALARY plays.
But if it does come in, I’ll be surprised – which is more surprise than I received while watching Rush’s play.
We can’t blame director Michael Mastro, whose taut direction includes fine performances from Bill Dawes as Rudolf Nureyev, the legendary ballet and modern dancer, and William Connell as painter Jamie Wyeth.
The real-life Wyeth has the misfortune of so many sons who follow in their father’s footsteps: they can’t walk past them but instead remain in their daddies’ shadows.
Jamie’s father was Andrew Wyeth, who’s CHRISTINA’S WORLD is one of the Museum of Modern Art’s most prized possessions. And Jamie’s most famous painting is … ?
Well, perhaps the one he did of Nureyev in the early ‘70s. For a while there, Wyeth must have thought he’d have to devote ALL of the ‘70s to getting this portrait done. Nureyev’s busy schedule was greatly to blame, sure, but more to the point, the star’s bullying temperament and hard-to-please nature exacerbated matters.
Because Nureyev is the Greater Achiever of the two, he’ll use his stature to belittle Wyeth’s standing as an artist and human being. Wyeth takes some of it – he wants that painting in his repertoire – but he won’t endure every sling and arrow of outrageous behavior.
But wouldn’t you expect that such a conflict would happen? And would you even be the least bit startled when each of the men lets down his hair and bonds with the other, comparing childhoods and seemingly making peace with the other?
So what can happen after that? More of the same over and over again. How much time must pass before Nureyev says the all-too-predictable “The only place I am free is on stage?” After that, there’s another little peace before another little war and then another little peace again, all the way to 1993 when Nureyev is dying. (Did you ever think you’d hear an AIDS joke? Prepare yourself for one here.)
As Nureyev, Dawes displays a solid Russian accent and enough fire and passion to rival Catherine the Great’s feelings for horses. Dawes makes us wince when Nureyev examines Wyeth’s sketches of him, unapologetically tears them in two and shows not a shred of sympathy for what went into them. As impressive as he is in every scene, Dawes is extraordinary in one more way: he’s never danced professionally, but he shows us some balletic moves with such confidence and precision that we’re hard-pressed to believe he hasn’t been dancing since childhood.
Connell does get to say a pungent line every now and then: “I’ve painted the Governor of Delaware,” he says, playing Wyeth’s trump card while knowing it’s hardly an ace but closer to a deuce. Wyeth is of course the less showy role, but Connell does well in going toe-to-toe with his adversary while always aware that Nureyev’s toes have put him head and shoulders above him.
Watching two superb actors do their best does yield some rewards, but even a play about a painter shouldn’t feel so paint-by-numbers.
Matters are substantially better next door at Crossroads, where Stacie Lents’ thought-provoking COLLEGE COLORS is enjoying a fine production thanks to director Kevin Kittle’s meticulous staging.
Tanya and Julie are freshman college roommates; so are Aaron and Michael. But there are some differences, and not just because Tanya and Aaron are black while Julie and Michael are white.
No, the young women are roommates in the here-and-now, but the young men were roommates in 1964.
Ah, you’re saying, a play such as this can go in either of two directions: 1) Look how far we’ve come in race relations! or 2) The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But just when COLLEGE COLORS threatens to become as predictable as NUREYEV’S EYES, Lents winds up showing us a universal truth about people living together.
Any husband or wife will tell you that cohabitating with a spouse is often terribly difficult – even for people who (supposedly and allegedly) love each other. So what about roommates who aren’t mates and are relegated to a mere one room? There’s a tacit feeling that roommates have a type of responsibility to forge a deep and lasting friendship. Lents reveals that roommates not only find such a state woefully hard to accomplish but that even a quiet détente is can be near-impossible to achieve. Any audience member who went away to college or boarding school will find a strange type of nostalgia trip awaiting them.
Gillian Mariner Gordon is Julie, a lass who talks so incessantly that she must have not only kissed the Blarney Stone but also hugged and caressed it, too. Julie should be glad she’s not a centipede, for she does poorly with the two feet she has; she is either verbally shooting herself in one foot when she’s not putting the other one in her mouth. And yet, Gordon and Lents make us have sympathy for Julie’s naïveté and stupidity.
At first, whenever Julie comes out with a new inanity, Wakeema Hollis’ Tanya patiently gives the benefit of every doubt, even as she questions her roomie’s value system. Hollis starts off simply widening her eyes and keeping quiet when hearing each of Julie’s thoughts, but her world-weary experience beyond her years can only keep her quiet for so long. Tanya’s feelings start to simmer, then boil; by the time she explodes with “Does your own behavior ever freak you out?” Hollis lets us see that Tanya is entitled to this justifiable anger.
Matt Maretz is Michael, who immediately makes us like him thanks to his matter-of-fact acceptance of Aaron. But we’ll find there’s more to his feelings than that.
There’s one point where Michael will find simply looking into the face of his roommate an arduous experience. Maretz does well in making him not daring to even glance at Aaron, and yet having to face him because he needs to know what his roommate really thinks of him.
As Aaron, Andrew Manning shows a tightly wound-up discomfort of living in a white man’s world. He certainly is taking his father’s advice to “Keep your head down” while fearing every dire prediction his dad gave him about matriculating at a white college.
Could Aaron’s father have ever dreamed of the atrocity that his son encounters soon after starting classes? The sad answer is that he probably could but didn’t want to scare his son any more than he had to. After all, someone in the family had to climb the next rung of the societal ladder, and college was the way that had to happen.
Aaron must then decide if he’ll be a sacrificial lamb or take revenge. Lents then shows us the ramifications of that act en route to revealing everyone’s true colors in COLLEGE COLORS. Welcome it warmly when it reaches Manhattan.