RED BANK: FUNNY THINGS KEEP HAPPENING

A Funny Thing...Forum TRTC 11-15 175 A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim choreography by Denis Jones directed by Jessica Stone Two River Theatre Company 11/13/15 Scenic Design | Alexander Dodge Costume Design | Clint Ramos Lighting Design | Jeff Croiter and Jake DeGroot Hair and Makeup: David Bova Sound Design | Drew Levy © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.netDavid Josefsburg, Michael Urie, Christopher Fitzgerald and Kevin Isola keep the toga party going for one more weekend, as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ wraps its run at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

Red Bank’s Two River Theater offers one more long weekend of happy-humbug harbor to all of us who may feel caught between a Dickens and a Nutcracker this time of year.

Directed by Jessica Stone — and boasting an all-male cast of Tony nominees, TV personalities, Two River returnees and toga-clad Broadway babies — the TRT’s naughty and bawdy production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum reclaims the Stephen Sondheim musical comedy (based on the farcical works of ancient Roman playwright Plautus) from the community church basements and school auditoriums it’s long been consigned to. And it uses the novelty of its “stag” staging to mine maximum gold from its broad burlesque belly-laughs.

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A ‘FUNNY THING’ ON THE WAY TO RED BANK

Director Jessica Stone joins actors Michael Urie and Christopher Fitzgerald in a promotional video for ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ the musical comedy opening at the Two River Theater this weekend. 

By TOM CHESEK

It was an early feather in the cap for modern master Stephen Sondheim, representing his first project as both composer and lyricist. Its book, based as it is upon some nearly 1,800-year old works by the Roman dramatist Plautus, was co-authored by TV writer Larry Gelbart on the way to his 1970s series success M*A*S*H. And, as befits a show whose breakout number is called “Comedy Tonight” (“something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone…”), it is one raucously irreverent musical toga party.

First seen by Broadway audiences in 1962, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum proved custom-fit to the larger-than-a-rhinoceros talents of the late great Zero Mostel — with the comic heavyweight starring as Pseudolus, a savvy slave in ancient Rome whose schemes to win his freedom (by helping his master win the fair maiden next door) take a classically farcical turn. The role also proved to be an express ticket to a Tony nomination for whoever filled that toga — from Mostel and old-school wiseguy Phil Silvers to (in its most recent revival) Nathan Lane, and even a well-received turn by Whoopi Goldberg that demonstrated the triumph of the Funny over etched-in-stone casting conventions.

With that in mind, when Red Bank’s  Two River Theater turned to director Jessica Stone (last season’s Absurd Person Singular) for some fresh ideas on this 55-year-old favorite — going up in previews this Saturday on the Bridge Avenue stage — the determination was made that “when in Rome,” do as the Romans did: by casting each and every part with a male performer.

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RED BANK: TWO RIVER INTROS NEW SEASON

DirdenStoneRechnitzReturning Broadway veterans Brandon J. Dirden and Jessica Stone — plus rookie playwright Robert Rechnitz, pictured with wife and fellow Two River Theater Company founder Joan — are among the creative forces powering a just-announced 2015-2016 season of shows on Two River stages.

It’s a highly anticipated rite of spring in Red Bank — one that John Dias jokingly referred to as “this totally kooky annual event” — but when the artistic director of Two River Theater Company played host for the 2015-2016 Season Announcement on Monday night, he was entirely serious in first thanking the “loyal, passionate” audience members who “want to be the first to hear what we’re doing each year.”

Kicking off in mid-September, and comprising eight productions on two stages of TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, it’s a schedule that boasts fresh takes on familiar classics, and first looks at a couple of world premiere works. There’s some engagingly quirky casting; the return of several fondly regarded members of the extended Two River family — and a debut original work by a forever-young upstart who holds a special resonance with the Red Bank audience.

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RED BANK: NEW SPIN ON THE ‘ABSURD’

Absurd_Person_Singular_press_1Mary Birdsong, Brooks Ashmanskas and Melissa Van Der Schyff are in the kitchen with Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR, now on stage at Two River Theater. (Photo by T.C. Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

“You’re no longer a man I care about enough to throw myself out a window for,” says long-suffering wife Eva (Liz Wisan) to Geoffrey (Scott Drummond), her philandering, condescending and probably incompetent architect husband — and the fact that the line gets a laugh tells you all you need to know about the level of sympathy elicited by these “two bitter lemons” and their faux friends in Absurd Person Singular, the ensemble comedy now on stage at Two River Theater.

Written and set in early 1970s Britain, the play by the prolific Sir Alan Ayckbourn opened this past weekend, and continues its limited-engagement Red Bank run with a mix of matinee and evening performances Wednesday through Sunday.

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RED BANK: PERSONS ACTING ABSURDLY

Absurd Person (horiz)Broadway veterans Michael Cumpsty, Brooks Ashmanskas and Melissa Van Der Schyff help bring Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s “wildly British” comedy of ill manners ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR to the stage of Two River Theater, beginning in previews this weekend.

The dried-out, needle-shedding Christmas trees of the greater Red Bank (ever)Green may be headed out to the curb as we post this, but for the next several weeks the holiday gatherings are in full force on the stage of Two River Theater — not just “this Christmas,” but “last Christmas” and even “next Christmas,” during the three acts of the ensemble comedy Absurd Person Singular.

If that whirlwind tour through Yuletides both yesteryear and Yet to Come sounds straight out of the Scroogely scrivenings of Charles Dickens, rest assured that the 1972 Singular springs from the electric typewriter of a more modern British observer of class and social mores: the prolific playwright, screenwriter and director Sir Alan Ayckbourn. The Tony- and Olivier Award winning theatrical titan (whose recent play My Wonderful Day was produced on the Two River stage a couple of seasons back) may not have made as big a splash on this side of the pond as in his native UK — but in the words of Brooks Ashmanskas, this “wildly British,” darkly comic 1970s take on all-consuming ambition, strained relationships and the effect of New Money on the Old Order “seems very 1980s from an American point of view…it should be very clear to all of us who’ve lived through the last 30 years.”

A Tony nominee for his work in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, Ashmanskas is one of several Broadway veterans sinking their teeth into the play’s sextet of naive, neurotic, alcoholic, ass-kissing, suicidal, snarky, snobbish and altogether comical characters — as Absurd Person Singular begins a round of previews this Saturday, in advance of a limited engagement that runs through February 1.

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TRTC NAMES SEASON OF PREMIERES, CLASSICS

RubenDavidLeeJessStoneTony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, FRASIER creator David Lee, and Jessica Stone are among the star-quality directors working with Two River Theater Company in the just-announced 2014-2015 season.

“Didn’t we just do this?” joked Two River Theater Company founder Robert Rechnitz, as he stepped up to the podium in the sleek auditorium named for his wife Joan and himself. The TRTC founder joined artistic director John Dias, managing director Michael Hurst and special guests on Monday evening, for an event that’s become a much-anticipated ritual in Red Bank — the unveiling of the upcoming season at Two River’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center.

Spanning centuries-old classics and modern milestones from both sides of the Atlantic — and fulfilling its stated mission of “leading, not following public taste,” with an unprecedented three world premieres — the 2014-2015 slate of mainstage productions stands as one of the company’s most ambitious yet; a schedule that had Rechnitz praising the acclaimed regional theater as “a school, slyly disguised as a place of entertainment…we want to fill the place, but on our terms, and yours.”

Take it just around the corner, for the details on the season that kicks off on September 13.

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