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Bright Lights, Small City

If all the world’s a stage, towns with local theaters are important players on it.

Posted February 19, 2008 by Teresa Politano

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David Saint, artistic director of the George Street Playhouse, once received a note of thanks from a young gay man whose parents had seen a performance of Two Lives, by Arthur Laurents, at the downtown New Brunswick theater. It tells the story of the famed playwright’s 44-year relationship with his romantic partner, Tom Hatcher. In his note, the young man said that, after seeing the play, his parents finally welcomed his partner into their home.

“Those are the stories that mean the most to me,” Saint says.

Theater that changes lives is a point of pride in New Jersey—“a real gift to the citizens,” says Bonnie Monte, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. But, she adds, “I don’t think most people understand what a rich thing they have right at their fingertips.”

Nationwide, theater subscriptions are down, and the stage must compete with a growing menu of entertainment choices. Theaters in New Jersey are experimenting with new ways of marketing (a show and yoga, anyone?), community outreach, educational programs, and post-theater discussions. They’re looking for the right balance between safe and edgy, and some are struggling. The venerable Paper Mill in Millburn is attempting to dig out of debt after nearly closing last season; 12 Miles West, which in 2004 moved from Montclair to Bloomfield, is again looking for a home; the Crossroads in New Brunswick is slowly rebuilding.

Creatively, at least, Jersey theater is thriving. In the last 25 years, the number of theaters in the state has grown from 5 to 37, with about 1 million people attending annually. New playwrights are being discovered and developed; challenging and vital subject matter is being explored.

The scene here is “ground-breaking and dynamic, with artistic integrity second to none,” says Jim Atkinson, program manager for Discover Jersey Arts, an organization that promotes awareness and participation in various cultural initiatives around the state. “When you look at it globally, the diversity offered here is impressive.”

Crossroads Theatre Company
New Brunswick

Since its inception in 1978, Crossroads has been heralded as one of the most innovative, provocative, and entertaining theaters in the country, with performances by Ruby Dee and world premieres by August Wilson and Ntozake Shange. In 1999, the theater secured a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional theater. Nonetheless, in 2000 Crossroads was forced to close with an accumulated debt of $1 million. It reopened in 2006 thanks to the efforts of board member Richard Nurse, who renegotiated loans with creditors and persuaded benefactors to believe again. Executive director Marshall Jones calls Nurse “the Henry Kissinger of Crossroads.”
Crossroads’ original goal was to portray the African-American experience honestly. Today it has expanded to showing how African-American culture intersects with others. This spring’s Curry Tales chronicles the lives of cooks from India, China, Trinidad, Brooklyn, and London. In the fall, the 30th anniversary season will revive some of the signature shows that put the Crossroads Theatre on the map.
300 seats, $45 to $55. 7 Livingston Avenue (732-545-8100, crossroads-nb.com)

George Street Playhouse
New Brunswick

In his ten years as artistic director, David Saint has persuaded artists such as Amy Irving, Anne Meara, and Arthur Laurents to come to New Brunswick. Last fall, The Sunshine Boys became the theater’s all-time biggest draw, thanks in large part to the performance of star Jack Klugman.
“Theater speaks to both heart and mind,” says Saint. David Auburn’s Proof was developed at George Street in 1999 and went on to Broadway, a Pulitzer Prize,  a Tony, and a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In 2003, American Theater magazine noted that three of the top fifteen plays performed in America’s regional theaters had been developed by Saint during his tenure at the George Street Playhouse. The spring 2008 season includes a racy comedy, The Scene, by Theresa Rebeck, with Matthew Arkin; Oscar and the Pink Lady,with Rosemary Harris; and Roger is Dead, a new comedy by Elaine May, starring Marlo Thomas.
379 seats, $28 to $64. (“Zen Friends,” from $60-$75 per person, includes an afternoon of yoga, tea, and theater.) 9 Livingston Avenue (732-246-7717, georgestplayhouse.org)

Luna Stage
Montclair

Artistic director Jane Mandel has chosen some heady works to explore this season’s theme, life in America. The recent production, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, centers on a Puerto Rican family’s three generations of soldiers. It was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. The Man in Room 306, a one-character play by Craig Alan Edwards, envisions the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. It opens April 3. (April is the 40th anniversary of his assassination.)
About 100 seats, $15 to $30. 695 Bloomfield Avenue (973-744-3309, lunastage.com)

McCarter Theatre
Princeton

Princeton students get an allotment of free tickets for certain shows and attend in large numbers; the audience also includes professionals in the nearby biotech and financial industries. This makes for lively and heated debate at the popular post-play discussions. “It’s a safe place to express a contrary opinion,” says producing director Mara Isaacs. What doesn’t seem up for debate is McCarter’s reputation for great performances, thanks to artistic director and resident playwright Emily Mann. In 2003, Mann produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna and the Tropics, with Jimmy Smits. Tyne Daly is currently starring in Edward Albee’s Me, Myself & I. Mann’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull premieres in May. Called A Seagull in the Hamptons, it turns the classic into a comment on today’s culture of celebrity.
1,072 seats in Matthews; 380 seats in Berlind, $12 to $55. (Student discounts are available.) 91 University Place (609-258-2787, mccarter.org)

New Jersey Repertory Company
Long Branch

“I love My Fair Lady as much as the next guy,” says executive producer and cofounder Gabor Barabas. “That’s not what our theater does.” Graphic and controversial is more like it. NJRep opened a decade ago to develop new works while bringing more people to downtown Long Branch. Whores, by Lee Blessing, about the four nuns who were raped and killed in El Salvador in the 1980s, was developed here in 2004. Barabas, a pediatric neurologist, refuses to shy away from hot-button issues such as racism and sexism. “It’s totally irresponsible and crazy, but someone has to do it,” he says. This spring, Engaging Shaw tells the story of George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Payne-Townshend, the woman who won his heart. The Little Hours, about Long Branch-born author and national wit Dorothy Parker, opens July 10.
65 seats, $27.50 to $50. 179 Broadway (732-229-3166, njrep.org)

Paper Mill Playhouse
Millburn

The 70-year-old grande dame of Jersey theater has a gigantic indoor fireplace and beautiful grounds, with a carriage house, a brook, and a koi pond.
Productions are first-rate. Nonetheless, the Paper Mill ended last season nearly $3 million in the hole. The public donated $1.3 million and the state promised $250,000 for this season. Last fall, the theater hired executive director Mark W. Jones (from Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts) to turn things around. Jones hopes to persuade Millburn to buy the property (valued at $9 million) and lease it back to the theater, generating revenue for the township through ticket sales, and more important, preserving the cultural cachet the theater provides for the town.
It’s no coincidence this season’s schedule is loaded with proven crowd-pleasers, including Kiss Me Kate, Steel Magnolias, and Little Shop of Horrors.
1,200 seats, $19 to $92. Brookside Drive (973-376-4343, papermill.org)

Playwrights Theatre
Madison

“I look for plays that can be considered pieces of literature,” says John Pietrowski, artistic director of Playwrights Theatre, which devotes itself exclusively to new works and nurturing the artists who create them. This spring’s Sedition concerns the price a German-born university professor pays for advocating American neutrality in World War I.
The theater’s statewide education project brings writers into the public schools and challenges students to tell their own stories. “People need to take back their creativity,” says Pietrowski. A former juvenile offender who is now a policeman wrote recently to ask for a replacement copy of the play he wrote while in the program. “The experience was transformational for him and me,” Pietrowski says.
102 seats, $20 to $27.50.  33 Green Village Road (973-514-1787, ext 10, ptnj.org)

Premiere Stages
Union

In 2005, you could have seen a staged reading of Opus at Premiere for $10 and afterwards enjoyed a stimulating discussion with the playwright, Michael Hollinger. Last year, Opus, about a high-strung group of  classical musicians, became an off-Broadway hit. “Most other theaters play it safe, and that’s not what we’re about,” says artistic director John Wooten. Next month’s readings of three new plays will be free, and audiences are encouraged to voice their opinions. “We always have an effusive crowd,” says Wooten.
Premiere Stages, based at Kean University, also sponsors school playwright programs at which members of Actors’ Equity give readings of the students’ works. Upcoming productions include the New Jersey premiere of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire.
100-150 seats in the Vaughn Eames Theater, $15 to $25. (Wilkins, the 950-seat theater, is closed for renovations.) 1000 Morris Avenue (908-737-KEAN, keanedu/premierestages/)

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Madison

“Shakespeare is unrivaled in his ability to capture the essence of being human,” says artistic director Bonnie Monte. STNJ is the longest-running Shakespeare theater on the East Coast. Monte works hard to demystify the Bard with workshops, touring performances, symposiums, and summer programs for students and teachers.
More than a million people have participated over the past fifteen years. But the backbone is scintillating productions of Shakespeare and other classics. Upcoming: A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Laila Robins, and Romeo and Juliet.
308 seats, $29 to $69 (the latter, on opening nights, includes champagne reception with cast and crew, and dessert). 36 Madison Avenue (973-408-5600, shakespearenj.org)

12 Miles West
This is the theater without a home. In 1992, a group of artists began 12 Miles West in a rented church in Montclair. In 1995, the theater found a permanent location there and dedicated itself to developing new works.Now the company can no longer afford Montclair.
“We brought the gentrification and got squeezed out by the market,” says artistic director Lenny Bart. In temporary residence at Playwrights Theatre in Madison, 12 Miles West this spring is co-producing the world premiere of Andy Shapiro’s Darkness to Light, tracing Beethoven’s path from  childhood to international acclaim.
102 seats at Playwrights Theatre, $15 to $26. 33 Green Village Road (973-259-9187, 12mileswest.org)

Two River Theater
Red Bank

Aaron Posner has turned Macbeth into a horror show of blood, hallucinations, seduction, and magic—Vegas-scale magic. Posner has been artistic director at Two River less than a year but has already attracted new theatergoers. Last fall The Charlatan Séance, more a séance than a play, brought in college students. Bad Dates became a popular girls’ night out. Future plans include a bluegrass musical, performances by Pat Guadagno (known for his Shore-based performances with B.B. King and Peter, Paul, and Mary), and A Murder, A Mystery & A Marriage, a Posner adaptation of a Mark Twain story. The theater, by the way, is brand new.
350 seats, $30 to $56. 21 Bridge Avenue (732-345-1400, TRTC.org)


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