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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Growing New Jersey Rep

If you think that the possibility of making a success

of a mom-‘n-pop business is waning, if not over, you haven’t been

to the New Jersey Repertory Theater in Long Branch. Here in the Lumia

Theater, in the not very beautiful downtown district, SuzAnne and

Gabor Barabas are busy putting their professional theater company

on the map.

Four years ago, the Barabases, who have been married for 34 years,

decided it was time to take the plunge, to make their long-germinating

dream of operating their own theater come true. For them, making a

significant and worthwhile mark on the community in which they had

lived for almost 20 years was important unfinished business.

To that end Suzanne and Gabor, the artistic and executive director

respectively, chose to inaugurate their theater in March, 1999, with

the world premiere of an untested socio-political drama, "Ends,"

by David Alex.

The response following the opening night performance was mostly positive.

The play, in which a white Vietnam veteran seeks refuge from a storm

in the secluded cabin of an African-American man, served to support

the mission of this upstart company. Despite the vagaries of developing

and presenting new work, the couple’s mission — to present new

plays with diverse themes — has not been compromised.

Unique from the very start — it is the only professional theater

in the state that produces plays year round — NJ Rep has been

drawing audiences from around the state and beyond. Because they have

a reputation for presenting bold, edgy, and adventurous plays, mostly

world premieres, they represent the nucleus of a new day and a hoped-for

new era in this once classy vacation area. In a town that can boast

it was once the summer home of seven presidents — Garfield, Grant,

Arthur, Harrison, Hayes, Mckinley, and Wilson — and where the

Church of the Presidents remains one of the few attractions for visitors,

the Barabases have found a place to follow through on their shared

commitment to the theater.

While one may assume that every theater-crazed person from performer

to producer hopes to land on Broadway, it is a reality for the Barabases

whose Lumia Theater is located at 179 Broadway — in Long Branch.

At a cost of $250,000, they turned an empty industrial building into

a comfortable and functional theater that supports two separate stages,

a small lobby cafe, and a comfortable lounge. With ample free parking

in an adjacent lot, patrons enter from the back of the theater. Named

for David Lumia, who closed the deal to donate the vacant building

to the Barabases’ non-profit organization on New Year’s Eve, 1997,

the Lumia Theater has been given an eye-catching Art Deco facade.

As I arrived for a Sunday matinee performance of "Till

Morning Comes," a new play by Mark NcNease, about yet another

controversial subject, assisted suicide, Gabor, in casual attire,

his longish gray hair neatly pulled back in a pony tail, was assisting

a handicapped audience member through the lobby. SuzAnne, smiling

and animated, was working the box office, all the while finding time

to lean forward for a kiss or a warm hug from a patron or two. Yes,

it’s Mom and Pop running the show just as they did more than 30 years

ago as co-founders of the Cincinnati Repertory Company, and later

the American Repertory Theater of Philadelphia.

"We are embarking on our fifth season," Gabor announces to

the patrons who have filled the majority of the intimate theater’s

70 seats (a smaller, second stage seats 55). The loyal audience laughs

knowingly after as he thanks them for the support they have shown

for what he calls "our relentless nosedive to oblivion." But

as grandly foolhardy a venture as running a theater is, the Barabases

are of one mind — and several professions.

"Originally I had no involvement in theater. I was going to medical

school in Cincinnati while SuzAnne was studying acting with Lee Strasberg

in New York," says Gabor, who recalls how he yanked her out of

her home in Brooklyn and took her with him to Cincinnati — "the

middle of nowhere." It wasn’t such a shock to SuzAnne who says,

"We actually met at a Halloween party when we were teenagers and

started dating."

Gabor was seven when his family fled the 1956 Hungarian uprising and

settled in Waterbury, Connecticut. SuzAnne was born and raised in

Brooklyn; Gabor moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was 13.

Transplanted to Cincinnati, SuzAnne decided to start a theater company

and as Gabor puts it, "recruited me under duress." Between

1970 and 1974, even with Gabor dividing his time at the theater with

his medical profession, they developed the Cincinnati Rep into a vital

community theater. When Gabor went to Philadelphia in 1975 to do his

neurology residency, it was only natural that they would start their

next and more daring, although still not professional, venture, the

American Repertory Theater.

At ART, the Barabases began to sneak less familiar classics of Strindberg

and Genet into their seasons of more popular plays. "When we left

five years later, the company still had money in the bank. But because

of the travails and pain, we vowed we would never produce again,"

Gabor recalls saying at the time. Those famous last words wouldn’t

stick either for SuzAnne or Gabor, who would mutually arrive at the

realization that, for them, theater was not only an artistic, but

also a social undertaking. It is this commitment that led them to

look for a venue in what was once a vibrant town but had become a

depressed area. "Our mission brought us here."

No feeling of depression exists, however, as we sit

in the theater’s comfortable lounge following the Sunday matinee.

An almost childlike enthusiasm is present in both of them as we talk

of the various challenges and future plans they have for their theater.

Parents and grandparents they may be, but the commitment they have

made to New Jersey Rep is rather like caring for a four-year-old child.

What SuzAnne and Gabor say excites them most is the nurturing of new

work. "Someone has to step up to the plate and it’s us," says

Gabor, stressing the help the can provide playwrights who have difficulty

getting their work produced. A novel approach is their method of casting

plays from a core group of 100 actors, all of whom auditioned for

the Barabases during their first year of operation. This and networking

by each play’s director eliminates the need for a salaried casting

director.

"Watching the budget is important," says Gabor, who allows

that after he and SuzAnne provided the seed money, the New Jersey

State Council on the Arts, the Dodge Foundation, and other philanthropic

and state organizations have answered the call. The Dodge Foundation

has most recently funded a project at New Jersey Repertory called

"Tomorrow’s Project." It calls for thousands of students to

explore their feelings coming out of the September 11 attacks through

dramatic writing.

Ultimately short plays by six of students, guided by

a playwright mentor, comprised an evening of theater that was presented

free to the public in May. Two professional videographers, who have

been following the students throughout the process, from the interviews

to the workshops, hope to produce a feature documentary on the project.

While the annual budget, according to Gabor, is about $350,000, he

says if he and Suzanne added and collected on their time it would

be in the vicinity of $600,000. Watching their home become a dormitory

for actors prompted Gabor and SuzAnne to purchase, as a limited liability

corporation, a residence for out-of-town actors, as well as the purchase

of a building one block away for constructing and storing sets.

Expectedly the cost of operations is increasing and they acknowledge

the need to broaden their support base. The fact that a theater may

fill every seat every night and not come to paying all the operating

expenses doesn’t come as a surprise to those in the industry. As is

true of all regional theaters, the writing of grant proposals and

the opportunity for expansion to bring in more revenue is always an

issue.

"We are now working actively to acquire a building across the

street, not to replace what we have but to add a 250-seat theater,"

says Gabor, who will be working with the theater’s 10-member board

of trustees, advisory board, marketing and fund raisers.

"We were nuts from the very first year, when we did 30 readings

of new plays," says Gabor. Open to the public, the free readings

have remained a Monday night staple. Not quite unwittingly, SuzAnne

and Gabor know they have helped the local community, that hadn’t seen

anything flower in the neighborhood in the past 50 years, or so. "It

helped psychologically to have something new in what had become a

blighted area," says Gabor.

A graphic artist who designs many of the theater’s posters, SuzAnne

says she is pleased that a group of 100 area artists is planning to

set up a working studio nearby, no doubt encouraged by the increased

activity generated by the theater. Considering the small seating capacity,

the theater’s current subscriber base of 200 is not insignificant

and has proven a boost to local restaurants, including Joe & Maggie’s,

voted one of the Jersey shore’s five top restaurants by the New York

Times.

SuzAnne, who went to Brooklyn College and graduated from Villanova

with a concentration in theater in 1978, has directed a half dozen

of the plays at New Jersey Rep. During the past four years she is

credited as co-author and lyricist of several plays and musicals.

She is also the co-author (with Gabor) of "Gunsmoke: The Complete

History and Analysis of the Legendary Broadcast Series." She happily

fetches this big book ("It’s in its second printing," Gabor

announces proudly) off the shelf in her office for this former fan

to see.

Because SuzAnne is an actress and knows what it means

to be buffeted by the politics of the profession, she says she wanted

to create, with Gabor, an environment that is more than anything else

protective of the creative process.

"The most frustrating thing about producing new work is convincing

the public that what we have is worth their time," admits SuzAnne,

as she acknowledges that her own tastes run toward themes that deal

with sex and death. "We may produce a farce, but don’t ask me

to read one. We give them to our readers."

Gabor, who received his BA from New York University and his medical

degree from the University of Cincinnati, trained for five years at

Children’s Hospital (University of Pennsylvania) in Philadelphia.

It was in 1978 that Gabor came to Rutgers Medical School to run their

division of pediatric neurology. Gabor is the child neurologist at

Monmouth Medical Center, a post he shares with his brother Ronald,

with whom he also has a private practice.

If Gabor speaks modestly about his medical career, he is equally self-effacing

about his not inconsiderable artistic side. This includes a canon

of poetry that has appeared in various literary journals, and his

published collection of poems "Russian Chronicles." The author

of several plays presented at NJ Rep, Gabor also produced "On

Golden Pond," with Kim Hunter (during the first season) and "Memoir"

(a play about Sarah Bernhardt) with Salome Jens and "Best Kept

Secrets," with Katherine Houghton.

The next production, opening Friday, June 21, is the world premiere

of "Panama," by Michael T. Folie, author of "An Unhappy

Woman," "Naked By the River," and "Slave Shack"

(another premiere presented by the company in April). "Panama"

is described as a bizarre comedy that is a combination of the ultimate

road trip and a middle-aged crisis. Its characters seek to discover

the secret of eternal life, while refuting social norms and moral

and ethical standards. Folie demonstrates a command of several types

of comedy here, with elements reminiscent of both Samuel Beckett and

Monty Python. "Panama" plays through July 14.

The season continues with the New Jersey premiere of "Maggie Rose"

by Kim Carney," Beginning August 8 and running to September 8. This

is followed by yet another world premiere, "Winterizing the Summer

House" by Gino Dilorio. Clearly the couple’s commitment to serving

up a banquet of new work is humming along.

"We want to establish an institution with a strong enough infrastructure

that it will go on without us. Our egos are not wrapped up in this.

When we walk away, and we will some day," says Gabor, "we

expect that the theater will continue on its course." Despite

the fact that SuzAnne tells me that attendance has doubled in four

years, I take this as a reference to that "relentless nosedive

to oblivion."

— Simon Saltzman

Panama, New Jersey Repertory Company, Lumia Theater,

179 Broadway, Long Branch, 732-229-3166. Opening night for the show

that plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2

p.m. through July 28. $30. Friday, June 21, 8 p.m.


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