By TOM CHESEK
When the 2015-2016 season resumes at the Two River Theater in Red Bank this weekend, it will find the celebrated company once again departing from familiar Broadway-tested properties like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Seven Guitars to the latest in an ongoing slate of world premiere dramas by relatively “new” playwrights.
This time out, the play is called Lives of Reason, and the rookie playwrights are a couple of eighty-something colleagues named Bob Rechnitz and Ken Stunkel.
A promotional video for the play. RBR student Patrick Monagahan (below) graduates to a big-league role in the play.
Rechnitz, 85, of course, is the retired Monmouth University professor and philanthropist who, with his wife Joan, founded Two River Theater Company on the school’s campus in the years before the Bridge Avenue arts center was but the germ of a dream. Stunkel, 84, served more than 47 years as a history professor and dean at MU in the course of a career from which he retired in 2012, his 80th year. Friends since 1965, the two veterans of the higher-learning milieu naturally turned to the world of academia as the setting for their maiden playwriting effort, which begins previews on Saturday and opens on January 15.
Presented in Two River’s “black box” Marion G. Huber space (rather than the mainstage Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theater), the cast includes Patrick Monagahan, a Red Bank Regional High School drama major and an award-winning public speaker who was previously seen on Two River’s stages in the company’s “A Little Shakespeare” productions. The endeavor also marks a welcome homecoming for its director, Jonathan Fox, who guided TRTC as artistic director during its earliest days in Red Bank and several lead-up seasons in West Long Branch and Manasquan) — and who’s since gone on to an acclaimed career with Ensemble Theatre Company in Santa Barbara, California.
The co-authors spoke with the redbankgreen Drama Desk in advance of this weekend’s first preview performances.
redbankgreen: You two gentlemen have been friends and colleagues for a great many years now, which sparks the question of just when and how this play first came to be. Is this something that’s been gestating for a couple of decades, or perhaps something that was filed away and just recently revisited? Or maybe it all came pouring out in a very recent flash of inspiration?
RECHNITZ: Without question, it all began with Ken’s work. He wrote a first draft and gave it to John (Dias, TRTC’s artistic director), who called me in and said, ‘what is this? It isn’t a play.’ But I said, I bet you I can help make it one. And so Ken and I spent three years meeting and trying to make it into a play. After the reading we did here, people responded as if it were a play.
STUNKEL: There was no simple focus at first. Bob picked out this woman character (Ilona) and said this is our main character. We were both kind of dumbfounded to realize that. We still have a lot of characters, but we made a real effort to cut some of them out, and to chop the play down to size. So what you’ll be seeing here is a single act, no intermission… although we do have a whole other longer version of the play that’s set up as two acts.
It’s also interesting to see Jonathan Fox make a long-overdue return to the Two River fold for this occasion. Was this an idea of yours from the start, or did he express an interest in traveling cross-country to bring this project to the stage?
RECHNITZ: It was (Dias) who suggested our asking Jonathan to direct. We thought at first that I’d direct it, but we began to think no, you need some other sensibility here, some checks and balances, and while I’m “the Boss,” Jonathan is the boss of this play. We were very interested in how he sees the play, how we’d work with him on it. Having Jon aboard really made this thing go… I was very much the neophyte.
The title Lives of Reason carries with it a bit of pomp, an air of self-importance that we’re thinking can’t possibly be presented with an entirely straight face. Please tell us that there’s more than a little tongue in cheek at work.
RECHNITZ: The title is indeed satirical… plenty of it comes from our personal experience. But what amazed me most is that it, by God, is fiction. It’s nothing at all that ever took place at Monmouth. But as we discovered, we draw from all that we’ve seen and heard. And Ken, of course, was a very significant dean. He knows the game extremely well.
STUNKEL: Academia has a lot of warts, and we set out to write a satire on it; that’s still in there. In fact, the president of Monmouth University came to the reading and told me, ‘Boy, you really nailed academia.’
It all takes place at a party thrown by English professor at his apartment. He’s invited the son of the college’s founder. He has ambitions to become dean, and wants to get money out of the founder’s son. And he comes up against a woman with whom he had an affair, a woman whose frustrations drive her to do something extreme.
The elephant-in-the-room question, of course, is whether any or all of the characters in the play were based on or inspired by anyone in particular.
STUNKEL: Every character has some resonance with us. For instance, there’s the ‘Postmodern Guy’ who teaches literature… and who insists that ‘literature is a crock of shit.’ That’s how these people really talk! There are teachers who don’t like their students, or their subjects, or themselves. You have to wonder how they got where they are.
These characters exhibit the same passions and impulses as anyone outside of academia. But at the same time there’s a special love of learning in there. The play is, in part, a defense of learning.
Was it also a learning experience in itself? Since this is the first such project that the two of you have taken on, what did you learn in the process of seeing this through from page to stage?
STUNKEL: We learned quite a bit about ‘what is a play,’ just in the process of letting these characters talk. Putting words in mouths is difficult: how do you avoid a cliche, or put it in a setting that makes for more rotundity? How do you say what’s already been said?
It isn’t any extraordinary insight; it just happened as we worked on it. As for myself, I’m just amazed at how many creative people are involved in putting on a quality production of a play.
The whole experience to me is like jumping off a cliff, thinking you can fly, although when you jump off a cliff, you can see where you’re going.
RECHNITZ: To me, what’s most fascinating here is that we are in our 80s…and we, by God, wrote a play!
Lives of Reason goes up in previews on Saturday, January 9; opens on Friday, January 15; and runs through February 7 with a mix of matinee and evening performances (several of which are sold out). Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here — and go here for details on a special January 26 “Night of Classic and Contemporary Poetry,” featuring several members of the play’s creative team and cast.