Show me a person who works in theater, and I’ll show you someone who says something bad about him or her.
Well, almost. I’ve never heard as much as a scintilla of criticism about Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas.
Instead, I’ve only heard non-stop raves in nearly a quarter-century of knowing them and their theater.
The Barabases run New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Playwrights who have worked there have plenty to say. “They’re incredible beyond belief.” (Joel Gross, author of THE COLOR OF FLESH). “They really go all out for you.” (Gino DiIorio, APOSTASY). “They make sure you get the best production possible.” (Katharine Houghton, best known as the daughter in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? but whose play BEST KEPT SECRET debuted here).
These are just a handful of playwrights who’ve seen their scripts live and on stage thanks to SuzAnne, the artistic director and Gabor, the executive producer. Since the late ‘90s in this small town (pop. circa 30,000), the couple has been producing six to eight new plays a year. Many have continued onto the other stages.
Note: new plays. Not last year’s Tony-winning hit, which so many regional theaters immediately book the second that the rights become available.
Not the musical from 12 seasons ago that has finally ended its Broadway run and at last has been released for national consumption.
No, New Jersey Repertory Company more often than not gives chances to new authors who are only known to their relatives and friends.
And yet, the Barabases have made quite a go of it on Broadway, which just so happens to be the name of the Long Branch thoroughfare on which their theater sits. This Broadway will never be mistaken for the one we have in midtown Manhattan. The neighborhood was quite depressed when the Barabases moved in – but has improved since they opened up shop and started their mission to stage untested works.
That married couples shouldn’t work together is a long-held belief. Considering that the Barabases have now reached their third decade professionally collaborating is astonishing enough, but their personal story is even more impressive. They recently celebrated their 51st anniversary, but they were dating long before the wedding — since they literally were teenagers. How many couples can boast that achievement in addition to all the others?
When a show requires music, Ms. Barabas’ brother Merek Royce Press composes it. Yes, the family that does plays together stays together – at least in this case.
(And I’ve never heard a bad word about Merek Royce Press, either.)
Now there was that time in 1999 when the Barabases presented ON GOLDEN POND. But consider the circumstances.
Stuart Vaughan, who’d been directing at New Jersey Rep, was to stage Ernest Thompson’s play at a Massachusetts theater – until the playhouse went bust. He called Mr. Barabas and asked if he’d like to take on ON GOLDEN POND. Barabas declined, for it was far from a new play.
Vaughan was surprised, for he wasn’t just offering two unknowns in the leads. Oscar-winner Kim (A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE) Hunter and her husband Robert (TWO ON THE AISLE) Emmett were to play Ethel and Norman.
When Mr. Barabas told his wife, she told him that they should make an exception and accept. “I felt bad that their show was orphaned,” said Ms. Barabas at the time. “And Stuart had done so well by us.”
In other words, Ms. Barabas’ niceness allowed her to bend her theater’s mission and give a director and his stars a break.
“We sold out immediately and turned away hundreds,” says Mr. Barabas. “Some people came all the way from North Carolina.”
After that, you might assume that the Barabases would say “Hmmm, maybe we’ve been on the wrong track. There’s gold in them thar stars and classics. Let’s get more of them.”
Despite the full houses, economic boost and additional notice from press and public, the Barabases immediately returned to their mission. They used the newfound money to prepare premieres of FIND ME A VOICE and MEMOIR.
Granted, “full houses” means that all of 67 seats are filled. But the Barabases will be leaving this space in the next few years in favor of a substantially bigger one. They’ve purchased a school no longer in use and have hired architects to transform it into a few theaters.
“One of them envisioned that we could have a theater with 500 seats,” said Mr. Barabas. “Suzie said no; she knows that new plays have a hard time filling that many. She wants 150 at the most.”
The theater had no problem selling out its 67 on August 17 when it officially opened a new-ish play that had had its world premiere last year at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. New Jersey Rep got it because it’s a member of the National New Play Network, an alliance of professional theaters that was founded to extend the life of new plays.
It’s MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN by D.W. Gregory. Its main character, Kreplev, associated with the Soviet Union in the ‘50s, certainly has no intention of forgetting Alexei, whom he suspects of one anti-government stance after another.
Kreplev summons to his office Natalia, a psychologist who knew Alexei as a client. Because “we must pull together for the common good,” Kreplev wants her to divulge information that will help him get his man.
Natalia doesn’t remember much – or is she holding back? Alexi, as we see in flashbacks, has no trouble remembering; he has a photographic memory worthy of a Nikon D5. Now all these years later he’s using that ability to perform as “The Amazing Aazarov” in carnivals across the country.
Playing Natalia is Amie Bermowitz who sounds quite like Madeline Kahn and rather resembles her, too. Bermowitz does splendidly as the round-shouldered nervous wreck that anyone would be when called into a Soviet Union office. The actress conveys the fear that that government regards her as guilty and will afterward even if she’s proved innocent. Everyone in the country dreads “the two a.m. knock on the door.”
Steve Brady portrays the no-nonsense Kreplev who’s out for every drop of Alexei’s blood and each pound of flesh on the man’s body.
(That he rather resembles Nikolai Lenin is a bonus.)
In flashbacks of Alexei’s growing up in a Soviet household, Brady also doubles as Vasily, his brother. Like so many siblings, each has a different view of the world. Benjamin Satchel is Alexei, who strongly conveys his nonchalant doubts of the dangers that his brother dispenses.
In time, however, Alexei will wish that he didn’t have a totally retentive memory. That’s what sends him to Natalia with an odd request: Can some of his memory be selectively erased? The man in essence wants another form of brainwashing.
Andrea Gallo plays Alexei and Vasily’s mother in admirable fashion. When Vasily warns her that she should hide a controversial book, Gallo straightens her backbone and staunchly states “No – we’ll put it on the bookshelf.”
An extra bonus comes when Gallo totally convinces as a hard-bitten newsman (yes, newsMAN) with the seen-it-all demeanor worthy of a character from THE FRONT PAGE.
Attendees should also be prepared for a nifty surprise. What seems to be a theatrical convention turns out to be much more than that.
What’s remarkable about James Glossman’s direction is that he starts off dispensing a sense of paranoiac doom and then builds it to the point where it’s close to unbearable.
That and Gregory’s script may not exactly make this a “summer show,” but the Barabases don’t think that way. If the play is good – and MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN certainly is – they’ll do it summer, fall, winter or spring.
New Jersey Repertory Company is A Theater for All Seasons.