Corrections or additions?
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
— Simon Saltzman
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.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.