Upon graduating from Rider University’s Theater School in May, 2010, actress Joanne Nosuchinsky intends to head directly to Hollywood. And if Princeton playwright and producer Marvin Cheiten is any judge, she will probably succeed admirably.
A mainstay in the Princeton area arts community, Cheiten has been taken with Nosuchinsky’s abilities ever since 2006, when he cast her in the role of Thalia, the hip, young leading lady in his play “Miss Connections.”
Nosuchinsky’s seems a life groomed for the stage. From a very young age, she was the family performer. Through junior and senior high school she danced, sang, and acted in a dozen plays ranging from “Music Man” to “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” At her mother’s urging, she auditioned for and got several commercials and modeling spots. She has performed in several production at Rider, where she has a four-year theater scholarship.
When Cheiten wrotes “Whizzer’s Island,” his 2007 sequel to “Miss Connections,” he tailored the Thalia role to Nosuchinsky.
With this already impressive resume, it makes perfect sense for Nosuchinsky to make the pilgrimage to America’s ultimate showcase — Hollywood. And that is what worries her friend Cheiten — and also propelled him to write his most recent play, “The Star,” which opens on Friday, August 15, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.
Jenna Ketzelbaum, the lead character in Cheiten’s latest effort, faces all the destructive forces and choices falling heir to a young ingenue stepping off the train into Tinseltown. At age 18 (two years younger than Nosuchinsky) she leaves her Margate, New Jersey, home seeking a Hollywood career. Trundling her immense talent and innocence through the corridors of fame, she actually begins to succeed. “The problem is that Jenna keeps hoping to find more control with each new achievement. Instead, with each triumph, she finds less,” says Cheiten.
“The Star” is Cheiten’s fourth play written and produced on the Hamilton Murray stage in as many years. Prior to “Whizzer’s Island” and “Miss Connections,” he produced “Zenobia,” a drama about the historical warrior queen who in 262 A.D. took on the entire Roman Empire with tragic results. “I find women of strong character very seductive to write about,” says Cheiten. Certainly, like Zenobia, Jenna Ketzelbaum squares off against the most formidable and grinding machines of her day. But there the creative comparison ends.
“Zenobia” had eight years to roam around in Cheiten’s fertile mind before finally being put down on paper. But with “The Star” there was no such luxury. “I recall seeing Joanne (Nosuchinsky) play Catherine in ‘Proof,’” says Cheiten. “It’s a dark drama, which I had seen several times, but her performance was so compelling, I actually felt I was understanding the charcters for the first time. It was then I realized I had to write ‘The Star.’” Egged on by this urgency, Cheiten tore off his dark comedy in a mere two months.
Naturally Cheiten has cast Nosuchinsky to portray Jenna Ketzelbaum. And he has dropped her into a full pool of true Hollywood sharks. Franny Silverman and Jason Szamreta, both Equity actors, play Ketzelbaum’s initial friends who gush seeming warmth and encouragement on her. Szamreta even does the young actress the dubious favor of becoming her agent. Yet throughout the play their very conficting agenda unfolds.
Equity actor Ken Schwarz takes on the challenge of playing four separate characters who are, as Cheiten puts it, “different facets of the same, very shabby diamond.” Both distinct and amalgamated, Schwarz’s characters represent a swirling mileau in which only the strongest are able to stay afloat.
Ryan Curtis plays Jenna’s high school boyfriend, who, as a total opposite from his starry-eyed love, finds the final attraction slow going. Perhaps coincidentally, Nosuchinsky’s own beau offstage is a technologically-oriented computer major.
Adding a true Hollywood element to the production, “The Star’s” director comes from Los Angeles. Director Dan Berkowitz, whose long history with Cheiten began when they were students at Princeton University and served as interns at McCarter Theater, will again make the trek east — Berkowitz has directed all of Cheiten’s previous productions.
Cheiten has been a patron of many artistic endeavors throughout central New Jersey. He served on the board of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra for 14 years, and even composed “Go On,” which was premiered by the symphony in Richardson Hall in October, 2004. A veteran supporter of Princeton Summer Theater, Cheiten led a fundraising drive to help refurbish Hamilton Murray Theater.
Cheiten has written 10 full-length plays, scores of short stories and essays, and many works of poetry. Among other places, his works have appeared in U.S. 1’s Summer Fiction issues. He is equally able to find nobility in queens as soccer moms, and though Moliere and French literature remain his first love, his own works probe into the intracacies of Garden State suburbia.
Certainly, the theme of “The Star” is not new. Tales of dewy-eyed young lasses heroically or hilariously battling their way up through the impersonal monster that is Hollywood are many and familiar. Hollywood has a marvelous way of characterizing itself. But one cannot judge a play solely by its synopsis; the play comes to life in the hands of writer Cheiten. Few contemporary playwrights are able to rival Cheiten’s feat of setting not one but three of his plays (“Zenobia,” “The Vault,” and “Queen Jane”) into iambic pentameter. “Some readers say my prose is more poetic than my poetry,” says Cheiten.
For its author, “The Star” goes far beyond the specific pitfalls of Hollywood or a gentle caveat to one friend. “It’s a comedy, but dark comedy, which reflects some of my sadder views of how exploitive and destructive people can be to each other,” Cheiten says. “Scarcely limited to Hollywood or show business, it can happen anywhere, to any of us.”
Yet Cheiten’s warning that each person must beware for his own soul is not a message without hope. “I omit the grays. We have seen in real life two possible Hollywood paths. The black paths taken by Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears have led these women to a ruinous loss of control, and I cannot imagine they are happy,” says Cheiten. “But then there is an equally obvious white path, exemplified by Kate Hepburn for whom acting was simply a job and merely a single part of how she found a fufilling life.”
Hopefully Nosuchinsky will indeed go off to Hollywood and with her talent find the roles and success she seeks. Hopefully she will be able to avoid too harsh a scarring from that city’s rougher, nastier side. Yet whatever her future holds, no one can say she launches her career without ample warnings from a playwright named Marvin Cheiten.
“The Star,” Friday, August 15, through Sunday, August 24, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. World premiere written by Princeton resident Marvin Harold Cheiten. Directed by Dan Berkowitz. $16 to $20. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.