Consider a play where art comes to life and promises to make us laugh and also consider some lessons about living. In the world premiere of the comic play "Exhibit This!" by New Jersey award-winning playwright Luigi Jannuzzi, presented by the Peddie Community Players through July 17, the audience is transported to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Performed in the Mariboe Gallery at the Swig Arts Center at the Peddie School, the venue serves as a fitting backdrop for Jannuzzi’s antic world, where paintings, sculptures, and tapestries leave their frames or pedestals and join museumgoers, curators, and even a museum guard, to try to make some changes in the worlds that they inhabit.
Socrates tries to escape into New York City – after he masters the cell phone that he has found. Museum curators try to capture escaping pointillist figures. Fertility gods in a tapestry harass security guards. The Penitent Magdalen in a 1638 oil painting by De la Tour pines for a new image. Why must she forever be penitent? Why not by now, a saint? Yes, this is "theater of the absurd," says playwright Jannuzzi. Under the direction of Michael Gallagher, six actors play many roles.
Jannuzzi and I talked over lunch on my back porch last week. And he deserves extra "points" for eating fruit salad and talking at the same time – even though he didn’t eat the crusts of his sandwich. His optimistic and energetic demeanor is appropriate for a man who writes only comedy. He feels that he doesn’t want to spend time with things that are depressing. He wants to be with characters that he likes. And he also appreciates the surprises of comedy, when there is a bit of a serious message tucked away under the laughter.
Someone during his student days told him that to be truly creative, you have to take seriously something that no one else has paid attention to. So, considering his long-standing love affair with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he first visited as a high school student, he felt the characters he had met in the paintings deserved an outlet for their feelings. He discusses the various characters as if they are old friends. "What’s wonderful about (graphic) art is that it’s on stage for one moment, frozen, perfect," says Jannuzzi.
He has been working on this play for the past six years and has written three times the amount of material than what the audience sees on stage. Conceivably, there could be a "Return of the Exhibit" and "Exhibit III: the Sculpture Strikes Back." Each piece of "Exhibit This!" was first developed as a one-act play. The play being performed at the Peddie School has been put together bit by bit. During our talk, something about Jannuzzi or what he says keeps reminding me of songs, and he humors me as I interrupt to sing a line from Sondheim, "Putting it together. Bit by bit. The art of making art."
There is a connection. This Sondheim song is from his musical "Sunday in the Park with George," where the people in Seurat’s famous canvas, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," come to life and sing for us.
Jannuzzi has written numerous one-act theater pieces as well as a number of full-length plays. Six of them have been published by the well-known purveyor of play scripts, Samuel French. His list of awards and honors for his work is so long that I’ll only pick a few as examples. They include a New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation grants.
The ideas that run through all of Jannuzzi’s work have been described as a combination of romantic and absurdist comedy with underlying serious themes of love, truth, and the need to rise above it all. He describes his own work as "a lot of positive stuff. Gee, I guess that is me." Someone once told him that he should write plays he would like to see because he was going to have to see them a lot. His enthusiasm for his characters certainly underlines his basic beliefs: "People are good. Life works out. Try to rise above the bad stuff. Dreams are worth it."
Jannuzzi grew up in an Italian-American family in Bound Brook, where his father was in construction, his mother, a homemaker. He describes them as very outgoing and friendly, a trait they have passed on to him. He has one brother, Joseph, born on the same day as he, just 10 years apart. He adds with a characteristic comic note: "Our parents were very organized." Joseph followed his father into the construction business.
For the past 20 years Jannuzzi has been teaching drama and creative writing at Immaculata High School in Somerville. He and his wife, also a teacher, have two boys and live in Hillsborough. Still wearing his identification bracelet from the Land of Make Believe, which he visited the day before with his sons, Mark, 5, and Lewis, 10, he beams like a typical father. "They keep me on my toes. One of our favorite things is to go fishing together."
He enjoys teaching. "I like to show people new ideas." Writing and teaching have been his goal since college days. A 1971 graduate of Bound Brook High School, he graduated from Salem University in West Virginia with a major in philosophy and theology, and earned a graduate degree from Notre Dame University in ethics. Jannuzzi doesn’t see these as strange fields of study for a comedy writer. He says that at the time, his route to where he is now may have seemed circuitous, but now looking back, the path seems straight. "I always wanted to teach and write."
He finds all of his work very rewarding. "I don’t know what it’s like in a math class, but when I say ‘Who wants to be the judge? Who wants to be the prosecutor?’ (they’re studying "Inherit the Wind"), participation is immediate and enthusiastic." You can be sure his students are also exposed to a lot of comedy, including the work of Neil Simon. "I grew up worshiping Neil Simon. I love the rhythm of his work." He also admires and makes sure his students know the work of David Ives, Woody Allen, and Ionesco. A number of Jannuzzi’s students have submitted their plays to contests and won some awards themselves.
He is affiliated with several New Jersey arts groups including the Waterfront Ensemble of Hoboken and New Jersey Teachers Theater, as well as being a member of the company at New Jersey Repertory Theater in Long Branch, where this play will again be presented as a staged reading on Monday, July 25.
The end of the first act of "Exhibit This!" features "The Fertility God Fugue," for which Jannuzzi has written the lyrics and music. A man of many talents, he demurs: "It’s not an aria, just syncopation to words." I’ll have to wait to add that song to my repertoire.
Later Jannuzzi called to give me one last word: "Every giant oak tree is a nut that made it."
Exhibit This! Friday July 15 at 8 p.m. (Saturday, July 16, sold out); Sunday, July 17, 2 p.m., the Mariboe Gallery at the Swig Arts Center at the Peddie School, Hightstown. $10. 609-490-7550.