VAN ZANDT & MILMORE DO WINDOWS AT BCC
Billy Van Zandt, left, and Jane Milmore (with someone else’s hands).
By TOM CHESEK
Long before Kevin Smith turned a Bayshore bodega into a shrine rivaling the Lourdes Grotto, they were the original Hometown Kids Gone Hollywood.
While half-brother Steve was reinventing himself with a fedora and the slick nickname Miami, Middletown native Billy Van Zandt was taking his own route up the showbiz mountain; memorizing whole seasons of I Love Lucy reruns and writing his first produced play (The Old Bird Sanctuary in the Park Trick, and How I Fell For It) when he was in junior high.
Post-school, Billy and his fellow aspirant, Wyoming-born, Rumson-based Jane Milmore, would hone their comic chops at such long-forgotten playhouses as Lois McDonald’s Barn Theatre in Rumson.
Burning with the singlemindedness of the classic comedians he idolized, Van Zandt managed to land a sought-after supporting part in the high-profile sequel Jaws 2 a movie that saw its gala local premiere at the (since Target-ed for big-box oblivion) UA Middletown movieplex. There followed other smallish roles in some astonishingly big films, such as the “Alien Boy” who gets to check coats for Kirk, Spock et al in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The military-school mayhem drama Taps proved to be an important step up for his fellow Jersey-fresh supporting player Tom Cruise, but for Van Zandt, the expressway to the career he had set his sights upon was to continue writing comedy scripts for himself to star in and direct.
With Milmore at the time Van Zandt’s girlfriend and a like-minded comedy maven in her own right coming aboard as collaborator, the prolific pair initiated a string of stage farces that began with Love, Sex and the IRS in 1979 and has continued pretty much unabated through some twenty subsequent projects. Many remain in near-constant circulation throughout the English-speaking world; a few have enjoyed off-Broadway runs, and it’s even been said of the team’s dizzying output that “you know you work in community theater if you’ve ever appeared in a show written by Van Zandt and Milmore.”
The weekend warriors of community theater weren’t the only ones who noticed the Van Zandt-Milmore phenomenon. When the producers of the CBS series Newhart called upon the accomplished team of gagmeisters to join the staff as story editors, it kicked off a long television career that saw Milmore and Van Zandt write, produce, supervise or create a slew of comedies that ranged from solid hits (Anything But Love, Martin) to some rather notorious misses (Bless This House, Daddy Dearest). The team effectively became the second coming of classic sitcommers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Davis, even scoring an Emmy nomination for the top-rated special I Love Lucy: The Very First Show in 1990.
Ah, but what of all the “little people” who made it all possible? As it turns out, Van Zandt and Milmore have hardly forgotten you. The team has made it a point each and every year since the early 1980s to workshop, preview or even world-premiere a new stage work back home in Monmouth County. For more than ten years now the venue for these “homecoming” projects has been Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, a facility that plays host once again with Wrong Window, the comedy that makes its world premiere at the school’s Performing Arts Center this Friday.
In this Hitchcock-flavored comic thriller, Van Zandt and Milmore star as an off-again, on-again couple whose brittle relationship is further complicated when Jane’s character sees, or at least thinks she sees, a heinous act from the “rear window” of their apartment. Aside from the obvious Hitch film reference, the authors own up to a set of influences that include To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, The Birds and even the neglected Steve Guttenberg film The Bedroom Window.
“It’s an homage, not a parody,” Milmore asserts as she and Van Zandt sit down with redbankgreen one recent afternoon at McLoone’s in Sea Bright. “We’d been wanting to do a thriller, but one that would hold up as a murder mystery.”
The two even took some inspiration from a French poster for Rear Window; crafting as the show’s main advertising image their own take (photographed by Danny Sanchez at his Red Bank studio), about which Milmore good-naturedly groused “I polished my nails for the occasion, and they wound up using different hands in front of my face.”
Several members of what’s come to be known as the Unofficial Van Zandt-Milmore Repertory Company co-star in the production, including comic cohorts Glenn Jones, Jeff Babey, Art Neill and Red Bank’s Geoff Shields. Susan Travers and Marisa Maffia also appear in the cast directed by Van Zandt with Mark Fleming, whose Premier Theatre Company kicks off its own summer season of shows in Lincroft next month.
According to the authors, Window is a technically complex show with multiple scene changes, a detailed plot and the patented brand of Van Zandt-Milmore choreographed chaos. A departure, to be sure, from last year’s You’ve Got Hate Mail, a “virtual farce” in which the entire cast sat isolated at computer terminals, “interacting” while never crossing over into each other’s stage space.
“We were afraid going into it, because of the language, the content, the whole format of the show,” says Van Zandt of Hate Mail. “But really, over the past ten years, every show we’ve done has scared me.”
That decade worth of shows has included a musical (The Pennies), a Marx Brothers pastiche equipped with a detail-intensive ballet sequence (A Night at the Nutcracker), a serious solo Van Zandt show starring his wife Adrienne Barbeau (The Property Known As Garland) and the thoroughly unorthodox Silent Laughter, a live-on-stage recreation (complete with organ accompaniment and projected titles) of a pre-talkie screen comedy and one, quite unlike Hate Mail, in which the actors never got a chance to sit down and say their lines.
There wasn’t much sitting down allowed during the protracted run of the recent TV writers’ strike, either. “The strike required us to spend forty hours a week on the picket line, or volunteering in the office,” says Van Zandt.
“I did manage to get away for a while,” Milmore confesses, adding that she “followed the Springsteen tour around like a groupie in France and Spain.”
With The Industry lurching back into gear, the partners (currently unrepresented on network schedules) plan to attempt to get back into the game by pitching some concepts for series pilots in the upcoming months. And, since a lunchtime conversation with these showbiz veterans comes garnished with an array of killer anecdotes on various celebs they’ve worked with (from Don Rickles and Dorothy Lamour to Richard Lewis and the late, troubled funnyman Richard Jeni), it makes perfect sense when Van Zandt lets on that they’re thinking of pitching a series based upon their own experiences in the business of television.
“Why not?” says Milmore. “We’ve been ‘married,’ we’ve been ‘divorced,’ we’ve had this relationship for over 30 years that’s been intensely personal, to entirely professional; we’ve loved each other and hated each other to the point where going to work was the most difficult thing in the world…why not?”
Opening Friday at 8p, Wrong Window plays for three weekends with shows on Friday and Saturday evenings (as well as a 3p matinee on Sunday, June 1) through June 7. Tickets ($18 general admission) can be reserved by calling the Brookdale PAC box office at 732.224.2411.