RED BANK: TRTC REGRETS CASTING CHOICES

The reading’s cast includes, in top row: Blair Brown, Michael Cumpsty, Oakes Fegley, Bill Irwin, Kevin Isola and Karl Kenzler; bottom, Bebe Neuwirth, Duane Noch, Gregory Noll, Steven Skybell, Phillipa Soo and Sam Waterston. (Two River Theater photo. Click to enlarge.)

[UPDATE: On July 31, the Two River Theater announced a cancellation of this event, with automatic refunds to be made to ticketholders. In addition, the theater said it is “planning a public forum to continue this complex conversation about representation in the theater.”]

Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company issued an apology Tuesday for “not having cast more artists of color” in a star-studded play reading scheduled for next week.

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RED BANK: TWO RIVER INTROS NEW SEASON

Michael Cumpsty, Brandon Dirden and Ruben Santiago-Hudson (pictured at an August 2016 event promoting the Two River Theater production of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM) are among the returning artists who are scheduled to contribute to the upcoming 2017-18 season at the Bridge Avenue arts center.

It’s a season highlighted by a bevy of returning talents, both on the stage and behind the scenes. A season that boasts an enhanced slate of offerings for young theatergoers; more outreach to the area’s growing Spanish-speaking audience, some never-before-seen works, and several fresh perspectives on familiar stories — including two by a certain Wilde man of English letters, as well as one even Wilder.

When Two River Theater Company raised the curtain on its upcoming 2017-2018 schedule of productions on Sunday night, it did so via a genuine “rite of spring” tradition at the Bridge Avenue artspace, as TRTC’s celebrated artistic director John Dias and a panel of guests heralded the company’s 24th season with a “debt of gratitude” to founders Robert and Joan Rechnitz (“the two most glorious people I know”), a tip of the hat to the faithful supporters (“we know you care about this as much as we do”), and a brief channeling of Sally Field (“you actually like us!”).

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RED BANK: ‘WINTER’ OF OUR DYSFUNCTION

lion_in_winter_advance_press_1Tony nominees Michael Cumpsty (center) and Dee Hoty (third from right) head up the cast of THE LION IN WINTER, going up in previews this weekend at Two River Theater. (photo by Amanda Crommett) 

Granted, it unfolds during a holiday family reunion — but as Michael Cumpsty makes sure to point out, The Lion in Winter “is NOT technically a Christmas play.” Unless, of course, you take into consideration the various head games, back-stabbings, subterfuges, jealousies and favoritism that make the late James Goldman’s script (set during the Yuletide of the year 1183) pretty much exactly like your most agita-inducing seasonal family traditions.

Still, given the timing of the Two River Theater production that begins previews this Saturday, November 12, it could just as easily be regarded as what Cumpsty calls “our election-season play” — one that “began to take on a whole other significance” as “we got into a crazier and crazier space.”

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RED BANK: MA RAINEY’S COMING TO TOWN

Arnetia_Walker_and_Doug_Doyle_WBGO_88.3_InterviewArnetia Walker is interviewed by WBGO radio’s Doug Doyle in a recent event at Two River Theater. The stage and screen actress steps/sings into the title role of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, the season-opening show that goes up in previews this weekend. (Photos by Carmen Balentine)

Arnetia_Walker_HeadshotIt’s a more-or-less annual highlight of the new season at Two River Theater: a further exploration into the work of the late August Wilson, the celebrated African American playwright whose “Century Cycle” of dramas — ten somewhat interconnected plays, each one set in a different decade and illuminating another aspect of the black experience in America — has apparently become an unstated but ongoing project at the Bridge Avenue performing arts space.

Just as they did with last September’s production of “Seven Guitars,” the folks at Two River are kicking off the new 2016-2017 slate of shows with a bluesy keynote from the house of Wilson: the playwright’s 1984 Broadway breakthrough “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Going up in previews beginning this Saturday night, September 10, and set inside a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, the music-infused ensemble drama is a bit unusual, in that it’s only one of the Cycle that’s not based in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. And, as the title suggests, it’s the only one of the ten that boasts a central character drawn from real life.

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RED BANK: MA RAINEY’S BLOCK PARTY @TRTC

Brandon J DirdenReturning star Brandon J. Dirden (above) is among the cast members expected to attend — while J.W. Lawson and Dean Shot (below) bring the live blues tunes — as Two River Theater keynotes the season opening-production of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ with a Friday evening “block party.”

JW Lawson Dean ShotWhile we’re still a few Saturdays away from the start of the new 2016-2017 schedule at Two River Theater, the Red Bank performing arts space is keeping it outside for the moment — with a special event that harnesses the magic-hour mojo of the late-summertime season and sounds an early keynote for a blues-infused season opener.

That inaugural production is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the August Wilson ensemble piece that opens September 16 as the latest in Two River’s ongoing exploration of the late African American playwright’s “century cycle” of dramas. The special event is a Taste of the Blues Block Party that rocks the theater’s open-air patio with a Friday evening fricassee of live music, dancing, locally sourced cuisine, and “a chance to meet and mingle with the cast.”

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RED BANK: FAMILIAR FACES RETURN TO TRTC

johndiasTwo River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, above, directs a musical that he co-wrote, and Madeleine George, below, the theater’s first Playwright in Residence, will see her comedy — which is set in Red Bank mounted next season.

madeleine georgeThere are encore appearances by favorite actors. Re-visits to the words and works of Shakespeare and August Wilson. No less than three shows making their world premieres — including one set within “a larger-than-life version of Red Bank.”

When Two River Theater Company unveiled its 2016-2017 schedule of productions Monday night, it did so in a fashion that’s become a real rite of spring on Bridge Avenue: with the company’s celebrated artistic director John Dias joined on stage by creative people representing the comedies, dramas, musicals and multi-media experiences that will illuminate Two River’s stages beginning in September.

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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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RED BANK: GO, GO ANNETTE

ThirdFilm and television actress Annette O’Toole stars in Wendy Wasserstein’s THIRD, continuing through June 22 at Two River Theater. (photo by Michal Daniel)

Wednesday marks the final homestretch of performances for Third, the Wendy Wasserstein play that closes out the 20th anniversary season at Two River Theater. For anyone who hasn’t caught the production under the direction of Broadway star and Middletown resident Michael Cumpsty, there are six more chances to catch the acclaimed and dynamic turn by Annette O’Toole now through Sunday, June 22. The Emmy nominated actress (for The Kennedys of Massachusetts, which also featured Cumpsty in a supporting role) and Oscar nominated composer (with her husband Michael McKean, currently on Broadway with Bryan Cranston in All the Way) stars as a middle-aged maverick professor at a Liberal Arts college, whose own bold ideas about Shakespeare’s King Lear are challenged by a young male student (Christopher Sears) who comes to represent everything the academic despises. Emily Walton, JR Horne and Amy Hohn co-star as the friends and family members in the professor’s eventful orbit.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Annette O’Toole about her role (and her time in Red Bank), with a Q&A around the corner.

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RED BANK: THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM

ThirdMichael Cumpsty directs Christopher Sears and Annette O’Toole in a recent open rehearsal for THIRD, the play by Wendy Wasserstein now in previews at Two River Theater.

As the director sees it, “it’s about challenging times in people’s lives…kids leaving home, parents being ill, political conflict…(but) it’s not a dark, unhappy play.”

The director is Broadway star and Middletown resident Michael Cumpsty, and the play is Third — the final work by the late Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and the closing production of the milestone 20th season at Two River Theater. Scheduled to open this Friday, June 6, the highly anticipated show can be seen this week in three preview performances, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights.

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RED BANK: CLAIMING FIRSTIES FOR ‘THIRD’

CumpstyOTooleMichael Cumpsty directs, and Annette O’Toole stars, as the public is invited to look in on a Friday evening Open Rehearsal for THIRD, the season-closing mainstage production at Two River Theater. 

In a 2011 feature that appeared here in advance of his first production at Two River Theater, Broadway star Michael Cumpsty confided a desire to someday portray Shakespeare’s wizened and world-weary King Lear. And for his third mainstage project in Red Bank, the Tony-nominated actor turns director for a play that, while it’s not Lear per se, has been recognized for its deep parallels to the Bard’s classic.

It’s the aptly named Third, the final work by the late Pulitzer-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein (whose Heidi Chronicles was one of the first plays ever produced by Two River Theater Company), and a dynamic character study that closes out the landmark 20th season for TRTC, with an engagement that goes up in previews on May 31, opens on June 6 and continues through June 22.

Before all that, however, the public is invited to slip through the side door for a sneak peek at the play in progress — during a Friday evening open rehearsal that affords an up-close look at director Cumpsty, at work with a cast headlined by a well-known actress of TV and film.

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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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TRTC’s 20th SEASON: AS YOU LIKE IT

Tony nominee Michael Cumpsty, Tony and Oscar winner Joel Grey, and Jade King Carroll make their Two River Theater directorial debuts during the just-announced 2013-2014 season.

By TOM CHESEK

As John Dias tells it, “We want to make sure we’re doing work that you want to see.”

The nationally renowned producer and artistic director of Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company was at the podium Sunday night, addressing an audience of supporters during an event that’s become a highly anticipated rite of spring: the announcement of TRTC’s next season of mainstage presentations.

The 2013-2014 schedule that begins on September 14 marks a genuine milestone, as it represents the 20th anniversary season for the troupe founded by Robert M. and Joan Rechnitz, a company that staged its first productions at Monmouth University before spending several years at Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre and eventually moving into its own branded Bridge Avenue building in May of 2005.

Introducing his third season’s selection of classic comedies, modern American dramas and original musicals, Dias praised the slate as one that meets three crucial criteria: honoring the theater’s mission, bringing in “some of the exciting artists working in the theater today,” and reflecting the two-decade history of TRTC. The 20th Anniversary season, for which subscriptions will soon be made available, unfolds just around the corner.

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RED BANK: CUMPSTY DONS COWARD’S ROBE

Tony nominee Michael Cumpsty, left is at the center of a “vortex of neurosis,” as Nöel Coward’s “Present Laughter” comes to Two River Theater in a production directed by “Frasier” co-creator David Lee, right. 

By TOM CHESEK

Just about one year ago, actor Michael Cumpsty — then a Tony nominee for his role as Judy Garland’s accompanist in the Broadway engagement of “End of the Rainbow” — stood on the stage of Red Bank’s Two River Theater and introduced the project that “will bring me back to Red Bank, which is where I want to be.”

The project in question is “Present Laughter,” the 1942 comedy by the multifaceted Sir Noël Coward, and a play that Cumpsty described as being about “an aging matinee idol, who throws everyone around him into a vortex of neurosis… kind of like [my] life.”

Beginning Saturday and for the next three weekends, the British-born veteran of more than 20 Broadway shows — and screen parts that include Nucky Thompson’s associate Father Ed Brennan on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” — steps into the role of Garry Essendine: frothy farceur, master manipulator, debonair devil, and a character written by Coward as “a bravura part” for himself.

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TRTC: ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH

A slew of classic characters from the pens of Shakespeare, Coward and Wilson and more will tread the boards of the Red Bank stage this season.  (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

“I feel like I’m having a dream,” the playwright and performance artist Lisa Kron said as she faced a capacity crowd at Two River Theater Monday night.

“In high school, we, the theater people, were like the outcasts,” she said. “This is the pep rally we never had.”

The occasion for the spirited assembly was the annual new-season announcement  by Two River Theater Company — one of the most highly anticipated such events in New Jersey stage circles, and one presided over by John Dias, now in his second season as TRTC’s artistic director.

As introduced by the nationally renowned producer and some celebrated associates, the 2012-2013 schedule builds upon the successful template established in the current 2011-2012 season — a season that climaxes with the production of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s My Wonderful Day, going up in previews on May 15.

Utilizing both the mainstage Rechnitz auditorium and the “black box” Marion Huber space at TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, the new slate of eight shows mixes classics of the English language with new American voices; intimate solos with exquisite ensembles, and new faces with a whole lot of returning favorites — with words from the likes of Noel Coward, August Wilson and a guy by the name of Shakespeare.

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BALDWIN & PAL: UNPLUGGED AND ELECTRIC

dias-baldwin-and-cumpsty-photo-by-mike-mclaughlin2Alec Baldwin and Michael Cumpsty (right) join Two River Theater artistic director John Dias (left) for an “unscripted and unrehearsed” UNPLUGGED fundraiser at the Bridge Avenue artspace Monday night.

By TOM CHESEK

According to Alec Baldwin, there’s a certain comfort to be found in the eight-shows-a-week Broadway grind, in that “at 8pm I know exactly where I’ll be, who I’ll be with, and what I’ll say.”

As for an admittedly “confessional” Michael Cumpsty, the British-born actor allowed that “I feel more myself when I’m playing someone else.”

The two stage veterans were in a casually confessional mood on Monday night — with several hundred eavesdroppers listening in on the unscripted and unrehearsed conversation — as Two River Theater hosted a full house for an intimate evening of scenes and stories presented under the name Baldwin. Cumpsty. Unplugged.

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TRTC: ALEC BALDWIN, UNPLUGGED, WITH PAL

alec-baldwinTwo years after his last and only visit, actor Alec Baldwin returns to Red Bank’s Two River Theater next month for a night of…

Well, chat, mostly. The pre-Internet kind, that is. Only, with a couple of hundred people looking on.

Baldwin and his friend and acclaimed Shakespearean Michael Cumpsty will settle in for an extended conversation focused on their work in, and shared love of, live theater, TRTC artistic director John Dias tells redbankgreen.

“He’s quite a formidable theater actor,” says Dias, a friend of Baldwin since they crossed paths working on a 1998 production of ‘MacBeth‘ at New York’s Public Theater, where Dias was the dramaturg and Baldwin had the lead. “He’s quite a persuasive force.”

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A MERRY WAR ABOUT ‘NOTHING,’ AT TRTC

buntrockcumpstyTony-nominated director Sam Buntrock, left, and Obie winning actor Michael Cumpsty bring Shakespeare’s comedy MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING to the Red Bank stage beginning this weekend at Two River Theater.

By TOM CHESEK

Flash back to the evening of May 2. The folks at Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company were proudly unveiling the 2011-2012 season of mainstage entertainments at their branded Bridge Avenue arts center — their first under the purview of artistic director John Dias, and the first to offer an expanded schedule of seven productions (plus a holiday-season family show) at both of the building’s performance spaces.

For several magical minutes, however, the auditorium named for TRTC founders Robert and Joan Rechnitz was the bully pulpit of a special guest — British-born actor Michael Cumpsty, a major presence on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages (he won a 2006 Obie award for playing no less a role than Hamlet) and a sought-after specialist in the works of one William Shakespeare.

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