Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Arrival of Two New Comedies:
Resident Alien at Dreamcatcher
and Emil at NJ Repertory

As the winter draws to a close, four New Jersey theatres are presenting new plays. The production of three world premieres (developed at the theatres presenting them) along with the production of a regional premiere attest to the vitality and ambition of these very valuable theatres. Two of these productions, both of which would probably be more at home on screen than they are on stage, are reviewed here. Reviews for the two others will appear in short order.

Dreamcatcher Repertory in South Orange offers the regional premiere of Resident Alien by Stuart Spencer. The play was first produced at Louisville's Humana Festival in 1998. It is the mission of this actors company to present contemporary plays which are out of the Broadway mainstream.

Presented in the style of a situation comedy, the story takes place in a small Wisconsin town from which aliens from outer space have abducted a 12 year old boy whom they wish to study. Everyone assumes that Michael, the boy's father, has kidnapped the boy in order to keep him from his ex-wife Priscilla and her husband, Ray.

A green-skinned alien, who has gone AWOL from the spaceship, seeks out Michael for companionship. The alien, an unappreciated interplanetary busboy, loves our culture and shares an interest with Michael in such matters as the theories of Kierkegaard.

The resident alien of the title is Michael. A mentally unstable intellectual who has not been able to adjust to his surroundings, he earns his keep as a clerk in the local K-Mart.

Neither Priscilla, Ray nor the sheriff recognize that the visitor is an alien as he insinuates his way into their lives. The alien's attitudes, the relationship between Priscilla and the three men, and their rural Wisconsin speech and manner provide the balance of Resident Alien's humor. However, despite mostly fine performances (there is an instance of miscasting), it is all only mildly amusing, and fails to seem substantial.

The visitor alien, who is rather randy, finds it ludicrous for humans to be concerned with either the color or gender of their sexual partners, but, as casually presented here, this doesn't add as much ballast to the play as author Spencer clearly intended.

An especially funny and entertaining scene at the top of the second act is most pleasantly disorienting. To say more, could spoil it. There is also a lovely, feel good final scene. In retrospect, it should not have taken me by surprise, but it did. It provides a very satisfactory conclusion to the evening's entertainment.

Rick Delaney captures the fine madness of Michael as well as the line that he walks between being a member of his community and being grossly alienated from it. Melissa Jane Martin (Priscilla) is earthy and exuberant and, along with Jeff Stone (the Sheriff), captures the rural Wisconsin flavor of the characters.

Harry Patrick Christian is as smooth, amusing and other worldly as the visiting alien should be. However, Dave Maulbeck (Ray) appears to be far too young to have any credibility as a contemporary of the other three earthlings. I do not doubt his ability to shine under better circumstances, and the blame would seem to fall entirely upon inappropriate casting. This can sometimes be a problem for a true repertory company.

In all other respects, director Mark Spina has done an excellent job with his actors and effects, and he has superbly used various playing areas and angles about the stage to capture the various town locations.

Spina has been enormously aided by scenic designer Stefanie Hansen and lighting designer Jill Nagle. The audience sits on two sides in adjacent sections on stage level risers. Initially, we see little more than a bookcase, a table and a couple of chairs representing Michael's room. However, the rest of the large black-curtained stage space has hidden delights which beautifully abet matters as the action progresses. K-Mart is most effectively represented by two fluorescent lights and one tiny blue light. Ingenuity has clearly triumphed over budget restrictions.

All in all, despite its mild nature, local audiences might well find Dreamcatcher's Resident Alien worth a visit.

Resident Alien continues performances through March 14, 2004 at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre, Baird Center in Meadowland Park, 5 Mead Street, South Orange, NJ 07079; box office: 97 3-378-7754 ext.7; online

Resident Alien by Stuart Spencer; directed by Mark Spina; Cast: Rick Delaney (Michael); Melissa Jane Martin (Priscilla); Dave Maulbeck (Ray); Harry Patrick Christian (The Alien); Jeff Stone (The Sheriff); Jesse Turtis (Billy)

Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Theatre is a playwright's theatre. Dozens upon dozens of plays receive readings each year as they are shepherded through a process which in the end provides the most promising candidates with full productions. However NJ Rep's current production, Emil by Benjamin Bettenbender, is not worthy of the ministrations which it has been given.

Barney Fitzpatrick, Elizabeth Audley and Jacob Garrett White
The premise is a simple one. Two months after his graduation from Rutgers, Michael has traveled by bus from his home in Chicago to a northern New Jersey working class suburb. Michael is seeking to "win the heart" of Beatrice, with whom he fell in love from afar when both were attending Rutgers.

Instead of Beatrice, he finds her father Emil at home. Initially, we are led to think that the decidedly odd Emil may be psychotic and dangerous. However, Emil, who possesses what could be described as a common man's bumbling wisdom, takes a liking to Michael's sincerity, and coaches him through an encounter with Beatrice's abusive boyfriend through which Michael wins her heart.

The action of this short two act play occurs in one scene in real time. And it does have some fun moments (particularly the frenzied climax of the first act). However, this is the stuff of dozens of movies. It is a nerd fantasy. With some expansion, it could be a major summer movie release. Emil is a kind of inversion of Robert DeNiro inMeet the Parents.

Everything about the production is exemplary. Barney Fitzpatrick is a perfectly off-center Emil. If anything, he's better as DeNiro than DeNiro, dementedly believable in what should be an unbelievable role.

Jacob Garrett White is very good as Michael. He is probably excellent. However, the character as written is so over the top and determinedly nerdy that you'll want to kick his butt and tell him to get on with it.

Elizabeth Audley manages to change from low class shrike to likeable young lady with her credibility intact. Audley appears to be physically ideal for this role.

Calvin Gladen as bullying boyfriend Todd brings as much humor as possible without losing the menace which he must project.

Director SuzAnne Barabas (NJ Rep Artistic Director) draws forth everything that the play has to offer and lots more. If Hollywood or TV executives see her work here, they just might steal her away from us.

There is a very playable, very detailed, realistic set by Andy Hall.

Unfortunately, all of this is in the service of a play which is déjà vu all over again. Long ago, television rendered plays like Emil obsolete.

Emil continues through April 4 at the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; on line:

Emil by Benjamin Bettenbender; directed by SuzAnne Barabas; Cast (in order of appearance): Barney Fitzpatrick (Emil); Jacob Garrett White (Michael); Elizabeth Audley (Beatrice); Calvin Gladen (Todd)

Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

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Bob Rendell

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