One of the most surprising (closer to shocking) things someone recently said to me was, “When I go to the theater, I don’t want to have to think, I just want to be entertained.” Considering how that (intelligent) person might actually have the ability let alone the inclination to shut down all brain function when going to the theater is almost unimaginable. Of course, what I suspect he was really trying to say is that he prefers to leave all his personal problems and those of the world outside. What he should realize (assuming that he is thinking) is that no matter how serious, controversial, scary, or disturbing a play or musical is, it still affords us an escape. After all, isn’t it why we get together in the dark? Going to the theater affords us the opportunity to consider and appreciate the dramatic creations and efforts of visual and performing artists who have made the decision and the commitment to think, if you prefer, for us.
The artistic and executive staffs of New Jersey’s 24 theaters presumably make a concerted effort every year to think about how to create a season of shows that balances the frivolous with the topical, timely, and classical. The issue for survival, especially in these days of reduced private and corporate donations and government funding, is always selling the largest number of tickets while maintaining the artistic integrity and mission of the theater. Consider, if you will, what an artistic director is likely to pitch directly to you as a potential subscriber to a full season. I’ve asked a few of the artistic directors and producers of our closest major regional theaters to tell us what they feel it is that makes their theater special, unique, and a rewarding investment. Give it some thought.
Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter, certainly has her thinking cap on and her hands full both in Princeton and in New York. As Mann is in the midst of directing the Off Broadway premiere this month of Edward Albee’s “Me, Myself & I,” the play she directed in its world premiere last season at McCarter. I spoke with McCarter’s producing director, Mara Isaacs.
While she echoes Mann’s view that “every production has to be an event; we must make a compelling case for someone deciding to spend an evening at the McCarter,” Isaacs also stresses how the quality of each production from the acting, directing, and design must be on the highest level. “We take our responsibility for what is on stage very seriously, that it be as worthwhile as it is stimulating,” says Isaacs. “We want audiences to have an experience here that they can’t have anywhere else.” There seems to be plenty of advance ballyhoo to support her enthusiasm for this season; that it “has a real dynamic range of content and approach.”
The first play of the season is in previews and opens on Thursday, September 16: “Aurelia’s Oratorio,” billed as a “topsy turvy” surreal show with illusions, tricks, and transformations. The production has been playing engagements around the world. Created by Victoria Thierree Chaplin and starring her daughter, Aurelia Thierree and featuring Jaime Martinez, it will be performed in the intimate Berlind Theater through Sunday, October 17. Isaacs says, “It is a wonderful diversion from your usual fare.” Check the U.S. 1 archives online at princetoninfo.com to read the feature story about Aurelia Thierree in the September 8 issue.
Don’t be surprised to find out that “An Iliad,” based on Homer’s epic tale of the Trojan War, will be performed as a solo performance piece starring Tony Award-winning actor Denis O’Hare, who co-adapted it with the play’s director, Lisa Peterson (from Robert Fagles’s translation.) Isaacs promises that it will, nevertheless, fill up the stage of the large Matthews Theater, which, she says, has “always been good for direct address. This story with its impressive language needs to be told in a big theater. We’re building a lot of scenery to make it look like there’s nothing on stage.” The war begins on October 19 and ends on November 7.
Isaacs calls Sarah Treem “one of the most exciting of all the up-and-coming women playwrights.” Emily Mann will direct the world premiere of Treem’s play “The How and the Why” in which a young female evolutionary biologist wrestles with an older woman, an established leader in the field, for the truth and dominance. I was impressed by Treem’s play “A Feminine Ending” when it premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2007. She is also the writer of the memorably trenchant episodes involving a suicidal student played by Alison Pill on the HBO series “In Treatment.” Performances are January 7 through February 13.
Probably no playwright has cornered and captured the southern gothic genre market as comically as has Beth Henley. Right off the bat (or is it bats?) with her first play, “Crimes of the Heart,” about three eccentric sisters and a birthday party gone wrong, she scored a Pulitzer Prize. McCarter audiences will fondly remember the lunacy that pervaded the world premiere of Henley’s “Ridiculous Fraud” in 2006. They will now get a chance to see the hilarious play that brought her to prominence. It will be directed by Liesl Tommy, who garnered acclaim for her direction of “The Good Negro” at the Public Theater last season.
“Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” the last show of the season, has the appearance of a sleeper hit — a show that promises to delight us in unexpected ways. A collaboration between two members of the pop trio GrooveLily (who contributed the charming music for the McCarter’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and Tony Award-winning book writer Rachel Sheinkin (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”), this fantastical musical will be under the direction of Valerie Vigoda. It is the story of a young beauty whose father claims she’s been sleeping for centuries and brings her to a 21st century sleep disorder clinic. The wake-up call takes place April 29 through June 5.
Although “A Christmas Carol” is not part of the subscription series, you can’t say that a season is complete without this annual seasonal treat that can be seen between December 5 and 26.
George Street Playhouse
George Street Playhouse is giving its subscribers a healthy dose of recent Broadway and Off Broadway hits this season. Despite his rigorous schedule directing a cast of 40 for the national road company tour of “West Side Story,” artistic director David Saint called me following a rehearsal to tell me why he thinks George Street continues to stand tall among our most successful regional theaters. While he won’t deny that George Street is able, largely through him, to access extraordinary talent such as Boyd Gaines, Shirley Knight, Jack Klugman, Marlo Thomas, and Jane Alexander, he also stresses (with all modesty, of course) that the stars who come there to work are likely — as did Celia Keenan-Bolger, who last season played the autistic daughter in “Creating Claire” — to call the experience with Saint and the entire staff “magical.” Sandy Duncan, who unfortunately had to withdraw from “Creating Claire” last season due to illness, will be returning to star in the opening show “Circle Mirror Transformation.”
What a discovery for me to learn that an actor playing a minor role is paid exactly the same salary as a star at George Street. The buzz that was created around playwright Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” was unprecedented when it played an extended engagement at Playwrights Horizons last season Off Broadway. George Street audiences will soon see why this play, in which a flirty former actress, a teen-aged girl, a hippie husband, and a divorced carpenter discover and reveal secrets about themselves while taking an acting class, captivated audiences. October 5 through 31.
“title of show” (lower case intended) was the little show that could — and did — move from Off Broadway to Broadway. This intimate and funny show about a group of musical theater hopefuls who collaborate but refuse to compromise their vision as they proceed to write a show for a festival is particularly meaningful to Saint. He says, “In rereading all the scripts for the season, I realized there was a common theme to all the plays and a theme that reflects what I stand for: That despite what other people say or think about us, we remain true to ourselves, who we are, and stay committed to who and what we want to be.” This, he says, is particularly true of “title of show.” November 16 through December 12.
That same theme pervades Frank D. Gilroy’s “The Subject of Roses,” the 1964 Pulitzer Prize- winning drama about a soldier who returns to his troubled parents’ home after World War II. February 8 through March 6.
Saint, who directed the national company of Ken Ludwig’s hit farce “Lend Me a Tenor,” will be directing the world premiere of Ludwig’s newest play, “A Fox on the Fairway,” touted as being “hysterical” by the publicity department. I’ll buy that. March 22 through April 17.
If you missed laughing at the chaos created in Yasmina Rez’s international hit “God of Carnage” while it was on Broadway then now is your chance to see how a dispute between two couples gets out of hand as they attempt to rationally discuss their sons’ schoolyard fight. This marks the New Jersey premiere. May 10 through June 5.
Anyone who knows or has simply spoken with June Ballinger, the artistic director of Trenton’s Passage Theater, quickly comes to the conclusion that she not only knows her audience but also knows how to intrigue them with productions that specifically define her mission as a resourceful and relentless supporter of local artists. As she touts it, “Passage is a community-based theater. By that I mean we are ‘community centered’ in story, talent, and audience. Beginning last season, we cast our mainstage talent to include Equity actors, directors, and designers from the Delaware Valley region (Philadelphia, south Jersey, Princeton, and Trenton). As opposed to casting and rehearsing in New York City as we had done for 20 plus years, we now rehearse on the Mill Hill Playhouse stage in Trenton and make our talent part of the community. Audiences like to see people they know on stage. We believe this change increases audience loyalty and participation.”
The season opens with a new play by Princeton’s Jim Christy Jr., “Love and Communication.” A married couple finds themselves in a byzantine world of internet gurus, school administrators, ethically-challenged teachers, and one another in their efforts to get through to their autistic child. Ballinger calls this premiere work from Passage’s Play Lab “surprising, sharp, and witty.” It will be directed by McCarter’s associate producer Adam Immerwahr. October 7 through 24.
Ballinger calls playwright Jeffrey Solomon (“MotherSON”) “a Passage Theater favorite.” His new one-man comedy, “Santa Claus Is Coming Out,” under the direction of Joe Brancato, tells the “true” story of Santa being outed as gay, but uses it a vehicle to examine with humor and compassion today’s culture wars and the desperate need for tolerance. You have to think fast as it will only be performed twice, on Saturday and Sunday, November 27 and 28.
The month-long 10th Annual Solo Flights Festival features an array of talent and varied entertainments between March 4 and 27.
A simple game of pickup basketball has higher stakes than two brothers could ever imagine in “Samuel J. and K,” a new play by Mat Smart. Jade King Carroll directs this highly anticipated world premiere May 5 through 22.
Crossroads Theater Company
Hearts and minds have combined to keep the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theater going and maintaining its stature as our country’s foremost theater dedicated, but not limited, to the African-American experience. A case in point is the world premiere of “Train to 2010,” a play set in South Africa, as one of the world’s youngest democracies prepares to host the 2010 world cup. Written by Sibusiso Mamba and co-created with Crossroads’ co-founder, Ricardo Khan (who will direct this production), this drama, developed at the World Theater Lab, Johannesburg, focuses on the fears, secrets, hopes, and visions of two laborers as they build the underground Johannesburg railway. October 13 through 24.
The season continues with “Holiday Jubilee,” a cross-cultural holiday musical celebration from December 10 through 18.
Woodie King Jr. will direct singer Vanessa Rubin in Reenie Upchurch’s play “Yesterdays: An Evening with Billie Holiday” in February for Black History Month, February 17 though 27.
Producing director Marshall Jones III will direct Lorraine Hansbury’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” April 13 through May 1. In a press statement Crossroads has this to say on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this dramatic classic, being performed on the Crossroads stage for the first time: “As a saga of a family striving to achieve the American dream, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ spans generational gaps. Whether experiencing it today for the first time — or after a lapse of several years — the play brings a new sense of discovery and vision in our shared journey as Americans.”
The season comes to a close with the traditional Genesis Festival of New and Emerging Voices, May 27 through 29.
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Bonnie J. Monte is celebrating her 20th anniversary as the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and it’s been two decades during which she brought the theater to a new level of excellence. She says: “We are certainly unique in that we are the only theater in New Jersey totally committed to the classics. But we take pride in not being either traditional or avant-garde. We refuse to be labeled, but rather allow each director to use whatever style or device he or she wants to frame the play. As the artistic director, I see to it that whatever vision there is has to serve the play. Theater today is an endangered species, and the only way we can get ourselves and our children to think creatively is through the arts.” Monte makes a case for STNJ being one of the prime leaders in that direction.
Although STNJ is already half way through its season that traditionally begins in June, the three plays still in the wings are eagerly awaited. Fans of “Law and Order: SVU” will undoubtedly recognize Tamara Tunie (who plays medical examiner Melinda Warner) as one of the stars in Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.” A new approach to it is promised for this comedy, which hasn’t been produced here in more than a decade. September 15 through October 10.
I’m particularly looking forward to the luminous Laila Robins as Queen Eleanor in “The Lion in Winter” beginning October 20 and running through November 14. The holiday season will be celebrated with the American East coast premiere of Dodie Smith’s British romantic comedy “I Capture The Castle.” Smith, who is most famously known for “The Hundred and One Dalmatians,” wrote her own adaptation of her 1930s novel. That we have never seen it surely makes it a not-to-be-missed event. December 1 through January 2.
Paper Mill Playhouse
Mark S. Hoebee, producing artistic director says, “For the first time in more than a decade Paper Mill Playhouse is proud to offer an entire season of musicals. Paper Mill Playhouse has provided the tri-state area and beyond world class productions for more than 70 years. Our extraordinary creative teams, professional crew, musicians, board, and staff create a unique product that has always set Paper Mill Playhouse apart from other theaters. “Big hair is back and it’s really big. Advance sales for “Hairspray,” the winner of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, has already prompted a five performance extension of its run. September 22 through October 24.
The students are rebellious and the barricades are going up for the phenomenon known as “Les Miserables.” November 19 through December 19. The students are coming back and smarter than ever in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” January 19 through February 13. Many, including myself, consider “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” to be a high point in the history of Broadway musical comedy. Let’s reconfirm it March 16 through April 10. Murder gets into the act in “Curtains,” the musical comedy collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”). April 27 through May 22.
You may have to do a little thinking to decide which theater suits your personal tastes. From my perspective, you can’t go wrong with any of the above theater companies that make New Jersey second to none in quality and in supplementing the artistic needs of the community.
635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, PA, 215-295-3694, www.actorsnetbucks.org.
12 Angry Men. Through October 10. Friday, September 24.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Through November 14. Friday, October 29.
Once Upon a Mattress. Through December 19. The production of “CATS” was cancelled due to a conflict in rights to perform. Friday, December 3.
Bristol Riverside Theater
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of lust, love, and horror adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. $34 to $42. Through October 17. Tuesday, September 28.
America Rising: Voices of Today. Staged reading of “Betty Thorpe” by James Armstrong. Light supper followed by reading. Register. Monday, October 4.
Old Wicked Songs. Pulitzer Prize nominated drama by Jon Marans explores the connections between art and guilt. $34 to $42. Through December 5. Tuesday, November 2.
America Rising: Voices of Today. Staged reading of “Clementine in the Lower Nine” by Dan Dietz. Light supper followed by reading. Register. Monday, November 22.
Bucks County Playhouse
70 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2041, www.buckscountyplayhouse.com.
Man of La Mancha. Musical. $22. Through September 26. Thursday, September 16.
Me and My Girl. Musical. $25. Through October 17.
The Rocky Horror Show. Cult musical. $25. Through October 31. Thursday, October 21.
Buddy Holly Story. Musical. $25. Through November 14. Thursday, November 4.
Hello Dolly. Musical. $25. Through December 5. Thursday, November 18.
A Christmas Carol. Musical. $25. Through December 24. Thursday, December 9.
College of New Jersey
Kendall Hall, Ewing, 609-771-2585, www.tcnj.edu.
Into the Woods. Musical presented by Lyric Theater. Register. Through October 24. Thursday, October 21.
7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100, www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
Train to 2010. World premiere of a newly-commissioned work by South African author Sibusiso Mamba. Through October 24. $40 to $65. Wednesday, October 13.
Holiday Jubilee!. Cross-cultural musical celebration with a blend of spiritual singes and dancers. Through December 18. $40 to $65. Friday, December 10.
Edison Valley Playhouse
2196 Oak Tree Road, Edison, 908-755-4654, www.evplayhouse.com.
Bleacher Bums. New York area exclusive production. $15. Through September 25. Friday, September 17.
A New Brain. Musical. Through November 20. $20. Friday, November 5.
A Family Christmas Show. $15. Through December 18. Friday, December 10.
Famous Trials Theater
Hunterdon County Courthouse, 75 Main Street, Flemington, 908-595-4849, www.famoustrials.com.
The Trial of the Century. Dramatic reenactment of the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial. $30; jury seats, $45. This is the 20th and final season of the show now marking the 75th anniversary of the trial. Through October 24. Saturday, October 2.
George Street Playhouse
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717, www.gsponline.org.
Circle Mirror Transformation. Comedy by Annie Baker about four people in a Vermont community center drama class. $29.50 to $79.50. Opening night is Friday, October 8. Through October 31. Tuesday, October 5.
[title of show]. Musical comedy by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell about two guys writing a musical received many awards and nominations as it went from a musical theater festival to Broadway with the help of motivation and dedicated fans along the way. $29.50 to $79.50. Opening night is Friday, November 19. Through December 12. Tuesday, November 16.
Mercer County College
1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, 609-570-3333, www.kelseytheatre.net.
Chess. Musical. $16. Through October 24. Friday, October 15.
25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Musical. $16. Through November 14. Friday, November 5.
Annie Get Your Gun. Musical. $16. Through November 28. Friday, November 19.
It’s a Wonderful Life. Family drama. $16. Through December 5. Friday, December 3.
Mason Gross School of the Arts
Levin Theater, George Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.
Fen. Drama about working class people in East Anglia. $25. Through October 9. Friday, October 1.
Egyptology. Drama about a gay parent trying to reclaim her child when her partner leaves her for a man. $25. Friday, December 11.
At the Jameson Theater, Jones Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.
The Jameson Project. Alternative, student-run theater. $5. Through December 12. Tuesday, October 19.
At the Mastrobuono Theater, 85 George Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.
The Hostage. Polical thriller in 1950s Ireland. $25. Through November 13. Friday, October 29.
91 University Place, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.
Aurelia’s Oratorio. Aurelia Thierree creates a topsy-turvy world of surreal surprises, tricks, and transformation. Through October 17.
An Iliad. Homer’s tale of love, battle, and honor adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Through November 7. Wednesday, October 20.
A Christmas Carol. Holiday classic by Charles Dickens. $33 and up. Through December 26. Sunday, December 5.
5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766, www.off-broadstreet.com.
Southern Comforts. Romantic drama. $27.50 to $29.50. Through October 2. Friday, September 17.
Guys and Dolls. Musical comedy. $27.50 to $29.50. Through November 20. Friday, October 15.
In One Bed and Out the Other. Classic farce. $27.50 to $29.50. Through December 31. Friday, December 3.
Paper Mill Playhouse
Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.
Hairspray. Musical based on John Waters’ film about high school bullies, racism, and girls with big hair. Directed by Matt Lenz. Through October 24. $25 to $92. Wednesday, September 22.
Les Miserables. Musical based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo about romance, revolution, and redemption. Through December 19. $56 to $84. Friday, November 19.
Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766, www.passagetheatre.org.
Love and Communication. World premiere of story about parents of a child with autism written by James J. Christy. Through October 24. $20 to $30. Thursday, October 7.
Santa Claus Is Coming Out. Comedy written and performed by Jeffrey Solomon portraying 20 characters in a story about Santa being outed as gay. Also November 28. $20. Saturday and Sunday, November 27 and 28.
Family Holiday Show. Saturday and Sunday, December 11 and 12.
715 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick, 732-254-3939, www.playhouse22.org.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Musical. $22. Through October 10. Friday, September 24.
The Crucible. Through November 21. $22. Friday, October 29.
A Christmas Carol. Through December 19. $22. Friday, December 10.
Princeton Theological Seminary
Schiede Hall, 64 Mercer Street, 609-497-7963, www.ptsem.edu.
Leaps and Bounds. A one-woman show produced and performed by Tevyn East about the interconnection of faith, ecology, and global economy. Register. $10 donation. Saturday and Sunday, October 2 and 3.
Berlind at McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787, www.princeton.edu/arts.
The Good Person of Sezuan. Adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play by Tony Kushner. Directed by Mark Nelson, Class of 1977. Through November 28. Friday, November 12.
At the Lewis Center, 185 Nassau Street, 609-258-1500, www.princeton.edu.
Floyd Collins. Directed by Andy Linz, Class of 2011. Through December 11. Friday, December 3.
Princeton University Players
Frist Campus Center, 609-258-1500, www.princeton.edu/pup.
Illyria. Co-produced with Princeton Shakespeare Company. $12. Through November 13. Thursday, November 11.
Yvonne Theater, Lawrenceville, 609-896-5303, www.rider.edu.
Striking 12. Musical in a new expanded version based on “Little Match Girl.” $10. Through November 20. Thursday, November 11.
100 Second Avenue, Roebling, 609-599-7200, www.roeblingmuseum.org.
Roebling: The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge. New Jersey premiere of Mark L. Violi’s new play based on the story of the efforts to complete the bridge from 1869 to 1883. $25, at 6 p.m. Through October 24. Friday, October 15.
Don Evans Black Box Theater, the College of New Jersey, Route 31, Ewing, 609-882-5979. www.shakespeare70.org.
Top Girls. Caryl Churchill’s intriguing look at the continuing journey of women in society and in the marketplace through the story of a career woman and what she left behind to get ahead. $12. Through October 2. Thursday, September 23.
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600, www.shakespearenj.org.
All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare’s drama features a cast of actors changing identity. $31 to $54. Through October 10. Wednesday, September 15.
Lend Us Your Ears Play Reading Series. Reading of “The Good Woman of Setzuan” by Bertolt Brecht. $15. Monday, October 4.
The Lion in Winter. James Goldman’s story of a dysfunctional family dynasty in the year 1183. $31 to $54. Through November 14. Wednesday, October 20.
Something Wicked This Way Comes. An evening of dramatic readings from classic ghost and horror stories. $32. Monday, October 25.
Lend Us Your Ears Play Reading Series. Reading of “Henry VIII by Shakespeare. $15. Monday, November 15.
I Capture the Castle. American East coast premiere of Dodie Smith’s romantic comedy. $31 to $54. Through December 31. Wednesday, December 1.
Somerset Valley Players
Amwell Road, Hillsborough, 908-369-7469, www.svptheatre.org.
The King and I. Musical. Through October 10. $18. Friday, September 17.
The Lion in Winter. Through November 14. $14. Friday, October 29.
A Christmas Story. Through December 19. $14. Friday, December 3.
Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University, 609-258-1742, www.theatreintime.org.
Red Herring. $12. Through October 9. Thursday, September 30.
24-Hour Play Festival. $12. Through October 16. Thursday, October 14.
This Is Our Youth. $12. Through November 20. Thursday, November 11.
Garden District. $12. Through December 11. Thursday, December 2.
475 DeMott Lane, Somerset, 732-873-2210, www.villagerstheatre.com.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Musical. Through November 21. $18. Friday, November 5.
The Playhouse, Princeton, 609-921-2663, www.rider.edu.
The Light in the Piazza. Musical. $20. Through October 24. Friday, October 22.