A TWO RIVER DOUBLE FEATURE FOR THE ‘SOUL’

Martin MoranActor, author and playwright Martin Moran brings his two autobiographical solo shows — ‘The Tricky Part’ and its followup, ‘All the Rage’ — to Two River Theater beginning this weekend in a special engagement entitled ‘A Map of the Soul.’

By TOM CHESEK

When the figurative curtain comes up on the next mainstage offering from Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company, there will be not one but two new productions commandeering the Rechnitz auditorium — both of them one-man showcases, and both of them drawn from the life experiences of their creator and star, Martin Moran.

The actor who’s entertained Broadway crowds in such merry diversions as “Monty Python’s Spamalot” garnered an Obie award and some significant critical acclaim in 2004, when he stepped in front of an Off Broadway audience with a highly personal, frankly confessional piece entitled “The Tricky Part.” Adapted from his own memoir of the same name, it seized upon an emotionally scarring experience from the author’s youth — a years-long sexual relationship with an adult counselor at a Catholic boys’ camp — recasting it as the impetus for a “journey to forgiveness” that would come to define much of Moran’s adult life.

Nearly ten years later, Moran would stand again before Off Broadway audiences (and reunite with his “Tricky Part” director, Seth Barrish) with a new piece called “All the Rage” — a spirited meditation on rage and reaction and compassion that sprang from Q&A sessions with his audiences at the earlier play.

“A Map of the Soul” is the title given to Moran’s current project at Two River, an engagement that combines 19 performances of “Tricky” with seven shows of “Rage.” Kicking off with a round of previews that begin this Saturday night, October 26, it’s a demanding schedule that finds the Denver-born Moran delivering both pieces as a double-feature theatrical experience on November 3, 10 and 17.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Martin Moran about hard work, long journeys, and challenging choices.

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TRTC OPENS SEASON ‘ON BORROWED TIME’

HoganGreyVeteran character actor Robert Hogan (left) stars in ‘On Borrowed Time,’ the season-opening Two River Theater Company production directed by Broadway legend Joel Grey (right). 

By TOM CHESEK

It’s a moving pre-war story of life, love, death and devotion, set in small-town America, shot through with a plain-speak wit and eloquence, and featuring an ensemble cast of young and old actors.

It’s not Our Town, but On Borrowed Time, a fantasy that also made its bow in 1938 — and beginning this weekend, Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company celebrates the play’s 75th anniversary with a new production that kicks off the troupe’s own 20th anniversary season. It also marks a homecoming of sorts for a genuine Broadway legend.

The script by playwright and screenwriter Paul Osborn concerns an elderly “Gramps,” whose young grandson “Pud” is left in his care after Death — personified as one Mr. Brink — claims the boy’s parents and grandmother. Wanting to keep Death away from his own doorstep — and seeking to fend off Pud’s money-grubbing aunt Demetria — Gramps employs a little wishing magic and wily wisdom to trick Mr. Brink into becoming trapped in the old man’s apple tree. When Death takes a holiday, what seemed like a victory soon poses its own set of problems.

A hit in its original run, the play was made into a film with Lionel Barrymore in 1939. Two years later, a nine-year-old performer by the name of Joel Grey stepped into the part of Pud, inaugurating a long-playing stage career that would see him win a Tony (and an Oscar, for the same role) as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret.

With TRTC’s season-opening production, Grey (whose Broadway roles in recent years have included Wicked and Anything Goes) returns to On Borrowed Time — this time as director.

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RED BANK: DOG DAY DIVERSIONS @TWORIVER

The musical act Early Elton — featuring members of the Asbury Jukes and the Fab Faux — brings its tribute to Elton John and Bernie Taupin to Two River Theater in a Saturday night benefit show.

The start of the 20th Anniversary stage season at Two River Theater is still more than a month away, but even as Tony- and Oscar-winning actor/director Joel Grey rehearses his cast for the upcoming production of On Borrowed Time, the stage of the Bridge Avenue performing arts center is abuzz with activity in these dog-day afternoons and evenings.

It’s a late-summer slate that kicked off with this past Sunday’s Beatlemania benefit concert — and which continues tonight with a sold-out screening of the locally produced documentary feature Destiny’s Bridge.

The sights and sounds and screenings roll on right to Labor Day’s doorstep, with a Saturday night benefit concert that captures the soulful spirit of an international music superstar’s introspective early albums.

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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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RED BANK: A RIDE FROM OHIO TO AUSCHWITZ

Playwright Lisa Kron performs her one-woman show 2.5 MINUTE RIDE, opening this weekend at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson. Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

In the hands of its creator, it’s a thrill ride unlike any other, a midway attraction that clatters up a rollercoaster track in Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park and hurtles down the other side on a grim pilgrimage to the concentration camps at Auschwitz.

Although it lasts a bit longer than its title suggests, 2.5 Minute Ride is an experience that’s more of a trip through time than space — a “funny, complex meditation on tragedy, grief and family,” in the words of the promo material, that unfolds exclusively through the spoken-word performance of Lisa Kron, the play’s sole cast member and the author who netted an Obie Award during its inaugural Ride in 1999.

Returning to the one-woman show for the first time in five years — and reuniting with Mark Brokaw, who directed that 1999 production at NYC’s Public Theater — Kron comes to Two River Theater for a new staging that opens this weekend and continues through the second week in May. Going up inside the mainstage Rechnitz Theater at the Bridge Avenue artspace, it’s a Ride that also re-teams the Tony nominee with Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, who co-produced the Broadway production of her play Well in 2010.

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RED BANK: AN ELECTRIC RIDE AT TWO RIVER

Antoinette LaVecchia, Nick Lehane, Lizbeth Mackay, Lucy DeVito and Steven Skybell in THE ELECTRIC BABY, the ensemble drama by Stefanie Zadravec now onstage at Two River Theater. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

To enter Two River Theater is to find a portal into another world; a passage to places that range from England during the Hundred Years War; to enchanted places where the animals walk and talk; to ancient Greece, elegant Paris — and Pittsburgh. We’ll always have Pittsburgh.

The city of the Three Rivers has made its influence felt of late over on Bridge Avenue. It was the setting for Two River Theater Company’s recent production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running (and last season’s Jitney).  Pittsburgh also happens to be the locale for The Electric Baby, the new TRTC production that went up in previews on April 6. The drama by Stefanie Zadravec — an ensemble piece populated by characters young and old, black and white, living and dead, including a glowing infant with a mysterious rare disease — saw its world premiere last year at Pitt’s Quantum Theatre.

The TV/film actor turned playwright found herself spending even more time in the city when one of her twin sons was referred for treatment to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh — and Zadravec writes eloquently here on how being the parent of a seriously ill child served to illuminate the development of what was then a work-in-progress script.

Opening officially with a sold-out performance this Friday night, The Electric Baby is one of two shows running through the early part of May at Two River — and part of an exciting slate of events as the 2012-2013 season enters its heated homestretch.

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RED BANK: TRTC ON TRACK WITH ‘TWO TRAINS’

The cast and set of AUGUST WILSON’S TWO TRAINS RUNNING, now onstage at Two River Theater. Below, actor Chuck Cooper. (Photos by Michal Daniel)

By TOM CHESEK

In an interview with redbankgreen last year, stage/screen actor and director  Ruben Santiago-Hudson told us, “Being involved with the work of August Wilson changes people. People of all colors, all religions, all backgrounds… he brings them into an arena and sends them out changed.”

At the time, the specialist in all things Wilson – a Tony winner for his performance in 1995’s Seven Guitars) –  was at Red Bank’s Two River Theater to oversee rehearsals for a new production of August Wilson’s Jitney. That acclaimed and extended run found Santiago-Hudson assembling a top-notch cast highlighted by fellow Tony winner Chuck Cooper – who also co-starred in Two River Theater Company’s musical premiere In This House – along with Anthony Chisholm, Harvy Blanks, Roslyn Ruff and James A. Williams.

All of these Wilson veterans are back on the Two River boards this month, as TRTC returns to Pittsburgh’s Hill District for a major new production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.

Set amid the social upheaval and forced “urban renewal” of the late 1960s — and playing out in a shabby diner set-designed by Michael Carnahan — Two Trains unfolds as eatery owner Memphis (Cooper) ponders the prospect of the city buying him out of his fast-fading business, home to a gallery of vivid local characters, and workplace of the embittered and elusive object of desire named Risa (Ruff).

Into this dreary tableau come a couple of characters portrayed by actors  making their Two River debuts. Owiso Odera, who worked with the director in a San Francisco staging of Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, plays Sterling, a young ex-convict with an optimistic set of dreams, if not the dollars to fulfill them, and John Earl Jelks, who was Tony nominated for playing an older version of that same Sterling in Wilson’s Radio Golf, appears as the slick numbers runner named Wolf.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen got delayed a bit by Two Trains Crossing at station stop Little Silver, but managed to pull into Red Bank for a whistle-stop interview with Owiso Odera. Mind the closing doors…

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TALKING TOADS AND KID LIT, AT TWO RIVER

 Tituss Burgess as Mr. Toad (center) with Tom Deckman as Mole (left) and Nick Choksi as Water Rat (right, in car) in A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS at Two River Theater. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

He’s the impulsive, fad-conscious, spendthrift, anthropomorphized amphibian at the heart of the classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows — and even for those who’ve never gotten round to reading Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 volume of stories, the image of a gleeful Mr. Toad racing through the countryside in his open roadster is one of the most iconic in all of Kid Lit.

The timeless tales of Toad and his animal friends have been variously Disneyfied, Pythonized, and even showtuned in a Broadway bomb with Nathan Lane. Here in Red Bank — where many old-timers still recall the 1970’s watering hole Toad Hall — audiences are now being treated to the world premiere of an all new musical spinoff (commissioned and developed by Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias), entitled A Wind in the Willows Christmas.

The annual holiday-season family show reunites the TRTC team with the partnership of Grammy winning singer-songwriter (plus 1970’s-era All-Pro defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals) Mike Reid and lyricist Sarah Schlesinger — the composers of the “chamber musical” In This House that premiered at Two River’s branded Bridge Avenue artspace last season.

Working with book writer Mindi Dickstein (Broadway’s Little Women and Toy Story: The Musical) and director Amanda Dehnert, the songsmiths have shaped the character of Mr. Toad to the talents of Tituss Burgess, an acclaimed creature of Broadway (he originated the show-stealing part of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid) and network TV (a recurring role on 30 Rock) whose trademark high tenor marks a departure from traditionally froggy-voiced conceptions of Toad. He’ll be starring alongside fellow woodland pals Nick Choksi as Water Rat, Tom Deckman (Spamalot) as Mole, John Jellison (Memphis) as Badger, and Farah Alvin (Nine) as a distaff Mrs. Otter.

In separate interviews, the Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Burgess and Reid during rehearsals at Two River — and Q&As follow forthwith, with a flip of the pixelated page.

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ETHAN LIPTON LOVES HIS JOB, AT TRTC

Playwright-singer-songwriter Ethan Lipton brings a jaunty and knowing look at disenfranchisement the Two River Theater’s “black box” starting Saturday. (photo by Heather Phelps-Lipton)

By TOM CHESEK

Time to give the pink slip to those working-class-hero rockers with their too-easy arena anthems. The clock-punching, cubicle-crawling, real-deal working stiff in all his/her “permanent part time” glory has a new musical mouthpiece — and it’s a middle aged, mustachioed, suit-and-tie spinner of songs and stories by the name of Ethan Lipton.

Over the course of several indie albums and the odd orphan track, the Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter and playwright is a man whose frankly honest and devastatingly funny sketches of modern millennial life have regularly tweaked and/or tipped such sacred cows as pet lovers, parents, police, the Greatest Generation and the tawdry ritual of the holiday gift basket. It’s all delivered with a certain jaunty good cheer over arrangements that mix lazybones back-porch blues and blue-yodel Americana with hotel-lounge jazz and the many moods of Randy Newman, Warren Zevon or early Tom Waits.

At the same time that he was brewing up his own peculiar musical cup o’ soup, Lipton was honing his craft as a dramatist — one of whose plays (Luther) was hailed last June by the New York Times as a “wine-dark satire… both hilarious and horrifying,” and another of whose plays (Red-Handed Otter) recently made its world premiere at the Off Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre.

Somewhere along the line, the California native wed his way with words to songsmithing savvy — and the result was No Place To Go, a song-cycle described as “a musical ode to the unemployed” and inspired by the artist’s own experiences with sudden job loss, dislocated self-esteem and whatever dark passenger brings a grown man back to his parents’ doorstep. Commissioned by NYC’s venerable Public Theater, the show made its premiere inside the Public’s Joe’s Pub earlier this year — earning its creator an Obie Award, a Village Voice cover and a December trip to the UK, where the work will be seen as part of the annual All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival.

Before that, however, No Place To Go makes itself quite at home inside the Marion Huber “black box” space at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, for an extended engagement that’s being helmed by Leigh Silverman — acclaimed director of the show’s run at the Public, and not coincidentally associate artist with the borough-based Two River Theater Company.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Ethan Lipton on the eve of the show’s run of previews — a string of performances that begins tomorrow night, October 6, and continues to the doorstep of Opening Night on October 19.

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BROTHERS FIND THE LADY, AT TRTC’S ‘TOPDOG’

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks directs her own Pulitzer Prize winning play TOPDOG/ UNDERDOG — starring a pair of brothers as a pair of brothers — when Two River Theater Company opens its new mainstage season this weekend.

By TOM CHESEK

For centuries, the irresistible promise of quick cash money has kept the classic betting game known as Three Card Monte — or Find the Lady, the Old Shell Game, and dozens of other variants — a favorite draw on street corners and cardboard boxes worldwide. This despite the fact that things are pretty much never quite as they appear, to put it diplomatically.

Ten years ago, no less an entity than the Pulitzer Board recognized the eternal allure of the game by awarding that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama to the Suzan-Lori Parks play Topdog/Underdog — a tale of two brothers, three cards, and a collective past that can’t be escaped.

As the first African American woman to have been awarded the Drama Prize, Parks made history. And, on the tenth anniversary of that theatrical milestone, Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias and managing director Michael Hurst return to the play that they helped develop in its premiere at NYC’s Public Theater — with the playwright herself on board as director for this inaugural offering of TRTC’s 2012-2013 mainstage season.

While her résumé also boasts an additional Pulitzer nomination, an Obie award and a MacArthur Genius Grant, the playwright and screenwriter, who was raised in a Germany-based military family (and who garnered huzzahs for her adaptation of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, itself a Tony winner this year for Best Musical Revival), won acclaim for capturing the sad, seedy, SRO world of brothers Lincoln and Booth. Upping the ante on the excitement of Parks’ personal participation is the fact that the siblings with those weirdly conflicting first names are being portrayed here by a pair of real-life brothers.

In the intimate setting of the script, Brandon J. Dirden (seen earlier this year in TRTC’s production of August Wilson’s Jitney) appears as older brother Lincoln — a man whose curriculum vitae involves working as a shooting-arcade human target, dressed like Honest Abe. He’s also a man whose split with his spouse has deposited him at the downscale digs of his younger brother Booth, played by Jason Dirden (a co-star in the 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson’s Fences). Over the course of the humor-laced dramatic action, the brothers reopen old wounds, argue the finer points of the three-card street game, and show off some fine stolen clothes — only to find that in the process of “striving for a better life, bound by their love for each other, they are haunted by their own pasts — and our country’s history.”

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Brandon (who was then just wrapping up his contribution to the Tony and Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park on Broadway) and Jason at the edge of a grueling round of rehearsals. Turn that card over for more…

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BRIT FARCE JUMPS POND TO CAP TRTC SEASON

Susan Heyward stars as Winnie, the “nearly nine year old” central character in the comedy MY WONDERFUL DAY, by Alan Ayckbourn, below.

By TOM CHESEK

As the author of nearly 80 produced plays, he’s been a magnet for gleaming trophies, plaques and medallions that include the Tony, the Olivier and the Moliere Award, not to mention five honorary doctorates and — what was that other one? Oh yeah, a knighthood.

You’d think then with all of that precious metal clanking about, Sir Alan Ayckbourn might make a healthy amount of noise on this side of the Atlantic. But regrettably, the works of the dramatist best known for the Norman Conquests trilogy and Absurd Person Singular are apparently in no danger of challenging the likes of Nunsense for dominance outside of America’s biggest cities and universities.

Beginning Tuesday, May 15, Two River Theater Company endeavors to change all that — as indeed they’ve worked to change the standard set of expectations for a “suburban” stage operation — when the professional troupe caps its 2011-2012 mainstage season with a new production of the 2009 comedy My Wonderful Day.

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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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AT TRTC, AN ACTOR TACKLES TWO PLAYS

Tony winning actor Chuck Cooper is in the house for IN THIS HOUSE, the musical that kicks off its world premiere engagement next week at Two River Theater. (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK 

When last we looked in on Two River Theater Company, the folks over at Red Bank’s regional professional stage were keeping the motor (and the meter) running on an acclaimed production of August Wilson’s Jitney, a modern American classic set in the heart of a scarred but scrappy urban neighborhood.

When the lights come up this Sunday in the Two River Theater’s intimate “black box” performance space, they’ll beam down upon a now-vacant home in a quiet bit of country; a setting in which two sets of strangers – a troubled young couple who’ve lost their way, and an older pair who’ve returned to this place to find something they’ve been missing – are brought together by chance on a frosty New Year’s Eve, In This House.

At first glance, the two shows would appear to have little in common – but a closer look reveals the presence in both casts of Chuck Cooper, the Tony winning actor and singer (1996 Best Featured Actor in the musical The Life) who topped the cast of Jitney as Becker, the dour and disillusioned boss of the play’s gypsy cab depot.

In the “chamber musical” that’s being staged for the first time anywhere – one of two world premieres in TRTC artistic director John Dias‘s 2011-2012 season (the other was last October’s Seven Homeless Mammoths…) – Cooper co-stars with Brenda Pressley (Broadway’s original cast of Dreamgirls) as the older couple Henry and Luisa. Jeff Kready (Broadway’s Billy Elliott) and Margo Seibert (TRTC’s Orestes) appear as younger couple Johnny and Annie under the direction of May Adrales.

And, as if the production didn’t already have enough to distinguish it, it may just be the only musical you’ll see this season that boasts a score by a former NFL defensive tackle.

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AN EXTENDED RIDE FOR TRTC’s ‘JITNEY’

Tony winner Chuck Cooper (right) appears with J. Bernard Calloway in the Two River Theater Company production of JITNEY — and sticks around to star in IN THIS HOUSE next month. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

In August Wilson’s ensemble drama Jitney, the cantankerous cabbie Turnbo admonishes his call-in “trips” with a warning that they’d better be ready when he gets there, ’cause he ain’t waiting.

That said, if you’re worried that you might not make it to a performance of the critically acclaimed play in Red Bank, the folks at Two River Theater Company want to assure you that they’ll keep the motor running for you.

The show now onstage under the direction of Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson — an offering described by Sledger reviewer (and dean of NJ drama critics) Peter Filichia as “magnificent” in his recent review and as “vibrant” by Anita Gates in the New York Times — has just announced an additional four performances between Thursday, February 23 and Saturday, February 25. That’s good news for anyone looking to catch up with a production that some have branded a worthy candidate for a New York engagement in the near future — although it could be potentially exhausting news for one busy cast member.

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A ‘JITNEY’ TO THE BIG TIME FOR TRTC

Ruben Santiago-Hudson announces JITNEY at the Two River Theater last spring, as Greg Brown and Rona Figueroa (of TRTC’s production of JACQUES BREL) look on. (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

The scene is the storefront dispatch office of an unlicensed gypsy cab service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District — a neighborhood unserved by the city’s major taxi companies, and an unlikely setting for one of the truly game-changing works of the modern theater.

When he wrote Jitney in the late 1970s, August Wilson was a largely self-educated impresario who came from far outside the theatrical and academic establishments to found his own shoestring stage troupe in the Hill District. What he didn’t yet realize was that this short-on-plot, long-on-vivid-characters ensemble drama would develop into the cornerstone of a project that would see its author hailed by many as the greatest American playwright of the last 50 years.

Before his 2005 death from liver cancer, Wilson managed to complete the ambitious work that would serve as his legacy: the Pittsburgh Cycle, a set of ten plays — each one set in a different decade — that encapsulate the African-American experience in the 20th century in ways that are tragic, comic, mystical, musical, realistic, hardbitten, hopeful and, in the case of Jitney, maybe all of the above.

Beginning with a just-added matinee preview on Sunday, January 29, Two River Theater Company makes its first foray into Wilson’s world as Jitney takes the stage for a three-week run. Heading a heavyweight ensemble of nine professional players is Tony winner (for The Life) Chuck Cooper as Becker, boss of the dispatch depot and a man whose relationship with his recently paroled son Booster (J. Bernard Calloway of Broadway’s Memphis) boils over into violence. Anthony Chisholm, who won an Obie as Fielding in the play’s original Off Broadway production, reprises the role of the alcoholic ex-tailor here — and the frankly awesome cast is rounded out by Harvy Blanks, Brandon J. Dirden, Roslyn Ruff, Ray Anthony Thomas, James A. Williams and Allie Woods Jr.

Most exciting of all is the identity of the director attached to this project — Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a longtime friend and professional associate of August Wilson who won a Tony for his acting in Wilson’s Seven Guitars (and who went on to co-star in Gem of the Ocean as well as direct numerous Wilson revivals). The busy stage and screen pro, who turned playwright for his autobiographical Lackawanna Blues (and who’s also familiar from three seasons of Castle, a TV series in which his character was rather disconcertingly bumped off), has been busily overseeing rehearsals in Red Bank even as he continues his current Broadway stint in the Alicia Keys-produced Stick Fly.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen managed to get in a few minutes with Santiago-Hudson as he jitney’d his way between two high profile projects.

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ANOTHER ‘CHILD’ IS BORN, AT TRTC

NO CHILD… playwright and star Nilaja Sun is scheduled to be in attendance at Two River Theater for one of this weekend’s performances of ONE CHILD, the original stage work created by a group of local high schoolers and inspired by her solo show. (Photo by T.C. Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

Just off the fringes of each year’s mainstage season schedule at Two River Theater Company, there exists a completely original, fully homegrown theatrical work that audiences will be able to see nowhere else — a project that falls under the umbrella title PlayBack.

When the invisible curtain goes up at Two River Theater’s Marion Huber “black box” space this weekend, the 10 area high school students who created, developed and rehearsed the full-length stage work known as One Child will be doing their thing at a performing arts center that’s regularly hosted Tony-lauded talents and other familiar figures of music, movies and TV. And, as is customary, audiences who’ve followed the PlayBack presentations will be able to claim “we knew them when” bragging rights.

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HONK IF YOU’RE FEELING DUCKY

honk-3Michael Genet as Bullfrog, center with the Froglets in the TRTC production of ‘Honk!” (Photo by T. Charles Erickson. Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

Old European superstition has it that animals are granted the gift of speech on midnight every December 25. Here in Red Bank, we needn’t go too far into December for certain critters to get positively chatty.

The team at Two River Theater Company has been busily gearing up for the launch of the annual family show production at their branded Bridge Avenue artspace — a recently minted tradition that’s promoted literacy, community and the all-around advancement of talking animals.

It’s a tradition that kicked off in earnest with 2008?s Frog and Toad, continued with Snoopy and friends in 2009?s Charlie_Brown, and upped the ante on interspecies communication with last year’s people-and-puppets production of Charlotte’s Web.

The latter two were directed by Philadelphia’s Matt Pfeiffer, and both featured frequent Two River player Doug Hara (Our Town, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Beginning with the first in a series of student matinee previews on Tuesday, December 6, actor and director team up once more for a project that promotes a musical message of tolerance, diversity and understanding, as put forth by a gaggle of eloquent fowl, frogs and felines — HONK!, a fresh and tuneful take on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Ugly Duckling.

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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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‘A LOVE LETTER TO TEACHERS’ AT TRTC

nilajacarolroseggNilaja Sun stars as teacher, students, parents and faculty in NO CHILD…, the Obie winning one woman show going up at Two River Theater in Red Bank. (Photo by CAROL ROSEGG/ Berkeley Repertory Theater)

By TOM CHESEK

Regular followers of Two River Theater Company might find themselves a bit taken aback when they check out the new show inside the mainstage Rechnitz auditorium — where the 2011-2012 season recently opened with a Much Ado About Nothing that boasted a large cast of Broadway vets, a Tony-nominated director and a script by one Will Shakespeare.

When the play known as No Child… goes up in previews beginning Tuesday, theatergoers will look upon a spare set design populated by a single performer — a player who also happens to be the playwright.

Those who feel they’re not getting their money’s worth should know that No Child… is a critically acclaimed, Obie-winning hit that’s been seen by over a million ticketholders, with over 600 performances Off Broadway as well as major productions on both coasts and both sides of the Atlantic pond.

They should also know that No Child… is not a monologue but a full-fledged comedy-drama featuring some sixteen speaking parts — young and old, students and faculty, male and female, funny and not so — all of whom just happen to be played by native New Yorker Nilaja Sun. In fact, Ms. Sun, who won that 2007 Obie for her work here, originally scripted this play for a quartet of actors, and has been carrying the workload of four people ever since the play’s earliest performances.

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‘MAMMOTHS’ TO A GOOD HOME, AT TRTC

madeleinemrcedesMercedes Herrero (right) stars as a slightly dizzied Dean in SEVEN HOMELESS MAMMOTHS WANDER NEW ENGLAND, the “academic sex comedy” by Madeleine George (left).

By TOM CHESEK

Saturday, October 15, marks a momentous occasion for Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company: the first preview performance of an all-new, never-before-seen play, developed by artistic director John Dias and the team of creative people at TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue artspace.

An original comedy by Madeleine George — a college professor and writing teacher whose résumé includes some of the  best-known universities and correctional facilities in the state of New York — the show called Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England is pitched as an “academic sex comedy,” one recommended for mature audiences on the basis of “simulated sex between prehistoric college students and contemporary lesbians.”

In the production (going up inside the Two River building’s “black box” Marion Huber Theater space) under the direction of Obie winner Ken Rus Schmoll, a small-college administrator named Dean Wreen (Mercedes Herrero) must contend with the budget-axe amputation of the struggling school’s Natural History museum — at the same time that her ex-girlfriend Greer (Deirdre Madigan) re-appears to further complicate things with the Dean’s much younger current partner, Andromeda (Flor De Liz Perez).

Throw in a campus caretaker (Joel Van Liew) who apparently lives in the basement — and a come-to-life couple of Early Man exhibits (Lauren Culpepper, Jon Hoche) who “take us through the history of human relationships, without moving a muscle” — and you’ve got what Dias has championed as a play that “weaves together screwball comedy and academic satire with a truly profound view of contemporary relationships, and the different ways that people make a family.”

Dias, who’s made good on his promise (in a previous interview here on redbankgreen) to bring “a couple” of world premiere shows to local audiences — the other is In This House, opening in March 2012 — sat down with the Drama Desk to talk about what we can expect to see when the Mammoths lumber into town (spoiler alert: it’s NOT a stage full of trained elephants)…

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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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