M’TOWN: PLAYERS TAKE ON A MODERN CLASSIC

reading roomThe Navesink Arts Center is the setting for DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the Arthur Miller classic going up in a Monmouth Players production this Saturday, November 5.

A funny scene in the screen comedy Soapdish has down-on-his-luck former TV actor Kevin Kline performing Arthur Miller’s heavyweight Death of a Salesman on the tiny stage of a neon-lit South Florida dinner theatre, to a blissfully oblivious audience of Rascal-riding retirees and dish-dropping buspersons.

That juxtaposition of one of the most celebrated serious dramas in American theater — and a setting that’s seemingly more suited to an umpteenth revival of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park — could be the stuff of nightmare for any earnest thespian who ever agonized over their craft. But when the Tony and Pulitzer-winning Salesman takes the stage of the Navesink Arts Center this Saturday, November 5, it should stand to prove that the Monmouth Players — the long-running local institution that built its 63 seasons upon a foundation of drawing-room “whodunits” and, yeah, Neil Simon comedies (including Barefoot in the Park, at least three times) — is seriously confident about being serious.

Frequent attendees at the Player’s home stage — the reborn and rebranded former Navesink Library at Monmouth and Sears Avenues in Middletown, that’s now under the stewardship of its longtime resident stage troupe — can vouch that this is no overnight transformation. Beginning with an annual presentation under the “Not Necessarily the Players” banner, exec producers and artistic directors Lori and Paul Renick (neither of whom had made their first entrance when the original Players put on their debut show in 1953) explored, expanded and exploded the parameters of  what the neighborhood playhouse could be, as they mounted some well-received stagings of everything from David Mamet’s salty-tongued Glengarry Glen Ross, to Margaret Edson’s edgy take on mortality known as W!t.

Turns out that “Not Necessarily the Players” was not necessarily NOT the Players after all, as the ambitious slate of offerings was eventually folded into the regular season fare via such properties as the domestic tragedy Rabbit Hole and the medical-ethics suspenser The God Committee. The declaration of a current “Season of Classics” — and its inclusion of a play that’s been hailed as “an American King Lear” in the years since its Broadway premiere — is perfectly in keeping with the little company that had ambitions of complementing their famous spread of homemade desserts with entertainments that are decidedly less sweet.

A career milestone for the author of All My Sons and The Crucible, the 1949 Death of a Salesman paints a portrait of Willy Loman — frustrated businessman (also in his 63rd year on earth), disappointed family man, and overwhelmed Everyman who’s losing his grip on both the American Dream and, it seems, objective reality. A suit-and-tie study in bitter jealousy, useless nostalgia and pig-headed pride, Willy makes life challenging for the people in his orbit (loyal wife Linda; sons Happy and Biff; helpful neighbor Charley) — and the role has challenged the talents of middle-aged actors from Lee J. Cobb (in the Broadway original) and Fredric March (in the 1952 film) to a couple of Hoffmans named Dustin and Philip Seymour.

Cast as the Loman family patriarch in the Players production is Robert Kern, a frequent presence on local stages who served for years as a journalist with the Asbury Park Press (and whose photographs have occasionally appeared on this website). Lynn Cefalo is Linda, with Travis Iommi and Myles Linzey as the younger (and no less frustrated) Loman boys. Jack Rosmarin is Charley, with Rudy Palma as his successful son Bernard, and the cast completed by Kevin Huelbig, Samantha Ambler, Lonnie Hilfman, Bill Golda and Kelly Cibrian.

Performances of Death of a Salesman are at 8:15 p.m. on November 5, 12, 18 and 19, as well as October 1 — with 2 p.m. matinees on November 6, 13 and 20. Required reservations ($20; $17 for seniors and students; $10 for veterans) can be made here or by calling (732)291-2911.