MIDDLETOWN: PLAYERS PLAY ON AT LIBRARY

reading roomThe former library, newly rebranded the Navesink Arts Center, is transformed into a spacious reading room and reception area for Monmouth Players productions. Below, Lori Renick (left) co-stars in the current production of Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs.’  (Photos by Robert Kern; click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

BrightonBeachIt sits at the relatively quiet corner of Monmouth and Sears Avenues in Middletown Township, on a parcel of land that boasts an ample parking lot and a couple of asphalt tennis courts, a fixture of some hundred years’ standing, in a history-steeped village of Old Stone Churches and Little Red Stores.

And yet, even some longtime residents of the township’s Navesink and Locust neighborhoods might be at a loss to tell you anything about the old Navesink Library.

When Middletown Township Public Library decommissioned its branch locations earlier this year, the library buildings in Lincroft and Port Monmouth were shuttered; their collections and equipment donated, sold or assimilated into the MTPL main branch on New Monmouth Road. Over in Navesink — a tiny one-room facility, with a small but comfortable auditorium in back, that had served as the township’s first library headquarters as far back as 1921 — the books were left to the nonprofit entity that had maintained the historic building for decades, and to the tenant that had called the place home since the 1950s: Monmouth Players.

As the curtain came up on their mind-boggling sixtieth season of productions this fall, the Players found themselves the new stewards of a genuine local landmark — and as theatergoers arrived this past weekend for the opening of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” they entered a venue that’s been reborn and rebranded as the all-new Navesink Arts Center.

NavArtsDuryeaNew path lighting leads to the  entrance of the Navesink Arts Center. At right, a vintage portrait of Herman B. Duryea hangs, cleaned and restored, in the historic building’s front room.

The rechristening represents a hopeful new chapter for a structure that was originally built as a community center by Herman B. Duryea — scion of a prominent manufacturing family, a wealthy yachtsman and horsebreeder of international renown who kept homes in Manhattan, Long Island, upstate New York and Tennessee. The avid sportsman had become taken by the woods and hills in and around Navesink when he frequented the area on hunting trips, and gifted the sparsely populated Navesink community with a “meeting house” that “was more of a private library or reading room,” according to Paul Renick.

“We’ve seen photos of men sitting around there, reading newspapers and smoking cigars,” says Renick, who with wife Lori has served as executive producers and artistic directors of the Players for much of the past 20 years. “The big room in back was originally a gymnasium, and a space where they’d present things like ballets. Downstairs was a big meeting room that was called at various times the Girl Scout Room or the Boy Scout Room… and there was also a bowling alley.”

The private entity’s merger with the township in the 1920s led to the creation of the Duryea-Navesink Library Association, an organization that owned and maintained the buildings and grounds — in addition to serving as landlord to the Players, the oldest theater troupe in Monmouth County, and a company that produced its first few seasons in various school and church buildings before taking the raised proscenium stage of the library auditorium.

With the departure of the township library, the association’s board chairman Michael Winchell approached the Highlands-based Renicks with the idea of having Monmouth Players assume ownership  of the entire property — taxes, utility bills, insurance and all. The transfer, a work in progress, was kickstarted by an endowment from the association “It’s money that goes all the way back to the Duryeas, and which Michael and the association have managed to maintain and grow over the years,” says Renick. That allowed the Players to reopen as the Navesink Arts Center, after just a brief bit of downtime for necessary cleanup and renovations.

As Lori tells it, the first rule of business was to “find homes for about 8,000 books. We didn’t want to throw anything away, so we held book sales, gave them out to teachers, and the Friends of the Plumsted Library came here with a trailer and loaded up the last of them.”

After the front library space was emptied out, the cozy old room with the handsome fireplace was refinished and reconfigured as the lobby entrance for Players productions — returning to a function that it fulfilled in seasons long past. New path lighting was installed outside the door fronting Monmouth Avenue, and the Players moved their justifiably famous spread of home-baked desserts to the front area, for which Lori envisions “keeping it open as a reading room, putting in a coffee machine, and bringing affordable things to the community like poetry and music events.”

Another important part of the process was to subject the library’s 1917 portrait of Herman Duryea to a thorough professional cleaning. “He’s been a dark, brooding figure for the past 20 years, and underneath the smoke and the grime he’s lightened up considerably,” says Paul. “it turns out he was wearing white pants all along.”

“He’s watched over this room for a hundred years, and if we have our way he’ll be watching over it for another hundred.”

One aspect of the former property that won’t be returning is the tennis court, now locked and closed to the public, that Lori explains is “prohibitively expensive to insure. Our goal is to eventually remove the courts and create a community art garden there.”

“It’s a pretty big chunk of land, and we’re responsible now for all the operating expenses,” she adds. “But apparently the rent that Monmouth Players paid in the past covered most of that anyway, so we should more than be able to make up for the gap.”

While they don’t go back quite as far as 1953, Lori and Paul have given over a pretty big chunk of their lives to the Players and their playhouse, putting their collective skills as home renovation professionals to work in the company’s detail-intensive sets (and the recent upgrading of the theater’s tech aspects. They also given the troupe known primarily for Neil Simon comedies and Agatha Christie mysteries an artistic shot in the arm through the introduction of Not Necessarily the Players, an annual foray into edgier turf that’s seen the Navesink stage host the work of David Mamet, Michael Hollinger, Tectonic Theatre Project and others.

The 2013-2014 Players season began with just such an offering — Margaret Edson’s frank and emotionally charged “W;t,” a Sandy-postponed holdover from last year — and segued into an extended “Season of Simon” that debuted with the 1983 comedy-drama “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and continues with the followups in Doc Simon’s semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy” — the wartime coming-of-age “Biloxi Blues” and the darker study of domestic comedy and conflict “Broadway Bound” — before concluding with an encore staging of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” a show that Paul Renick regards as one of the best that the Players have ever put forth.

“We’ve become known as the guys who do a lot of Neil Simon, but these are among the best things he’s ever done,” says Paul, who directs a typically multi-generational cast of Players (including Lori as family matriarch Kate, Players perennial Bob Mira as father Jack, and next-gen troupers Lucas Angelo and Noah Goldstein as Eugene and brother Stanley) in the current production. “There’s so much in the relationships and the characters.”

“You’ve got to do stuff that people want to see of course, but you’ve got to do it your way, and you’ve got to do it right,” he adds. “That includes greeting everyone at the door, and not putting out dollar store cookies at intermission. Even if someone doesn’t like a particular play, they’ll remember that they were treated well here, and they’ll want to come back again.”

“After the town built the Middletown Arts Center, they didn’t care about this place anymore,” Paul observes. “We want to have the community become aware of the building again.”

“The foot traffic since we’ve reopened has been great,” adds Lori. “So many people who’ve lived in this same neighborhood had never been here before.”

Log on to the Navesink Arts Center’s new Facebook page for updates on future events at the old Duryea place; a schedule that includes a November 9 art show (in partnership with Beauregard Fine Art of Rumson)   and a projected “singer-songwriter night” on November 16. Performances of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” continue at 8:15 pm on October 18, 19, 25 and 26 (with a 2 pm matinee on October 20). Take it here to reserve tickets to these and other upcoming show dates in the 2013-2014 “Season of Simon.”

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