For the past two summers in a row, Princeton poet/playwright Marvin Cheiten has debuted a new play that he has written. In 2005 he produced his historical drama "Zenobia." Last summer he surprised audiences with a change of pace – his satire, "Miss Connections," took a jab at Princeton mores. This year Cheiten is mounting "Whizzer’s Island," a murder mystery comedy and sequel to "Miss Connections," with performances over two weekends (Friday, August 17, through Sunday, August 26) at Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.
"Whizzer’s Island" focuses on a father, Tom, and his daughter, Thalia, and their mysterious adventures. The father’s college chum from Princeton days, Whizzer, lures them to his private island to discuss his latest project, a solution to the deer problem back in Princeton. With more than a slight nod to Agatha Christie’s "Ten Little Indians," their visit is not what they expected.
Actress Joanne Nosuchinsky, who is reprising her role as Thalia from last summer’s "Miss Connections," describes the folk on the island as eccentric, colorful, and, of course, suspicious. Joe Whelski is also reprising his role as Tom. Playwright Cheiten was so impressed with Nosuchinsky and Whelski in last summer’s production that he decided to write "Whizzer’s Island" with them in mind. Even if you missed "Miss Connections," Cheiten assures, "You can go in knowing nothing about `Miss Connections’ and still understand. Every work of mine stands on its own."
Talking by phone with Nosuchinsky, a rising sophomore in the theater program at Rider, I ask her how it feels to have a playwright develop a role just for her. She admits, "It’s every actor’s dream situation. I’m so flattered."
Nosuchinsky is on a full four-year scholarship as a theater scholar at Rider. She says she chose Rider because she knew some of the faculty and had seen productions there that she describes as "phenomenal." However, she admits, "money was the big part of my choice. Not having to finish college and then pay off loans is wonderful."
Certainly another advantage of a liberal arts education is that she builds a strong foundation for acting. "I thought I wouldn’t enjoy taking history classes and math, but I really enjoy it. Well, but not the math. I really like learning." In many conservatories and schools with large theater departments, first year students aren’t even allowed to audition for main-stage productions. Rider’s smaller program has meant that Nosuchinsky has in just her first year had a chance to perform a lot and gain actual stage experience.
In her freshman year she performed in four shows and worked backstage on two others. Her performances included Little Sally in the musical "Urinetown," a narrator in "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," and one of an ensemble of four girls who played a variety of different roles in "The Heidi Chronicles." "The first year went by so quickly," says Nosuchinsky, 18. "I was so involved with rehearsals and classes that I had to actually schedule times to shower."
In her spare time she did meet another Rider student, who became her boyfriend. He is very technologically savvy, she says. "He is majoring in computer something. I’m not exactly sure what it’s called." And he’s just as uninformed about her theater world. Much to her amazement, when she mentioned the musical `The King and I,’ he’d never heard of it. Can you imagine that?" She describes this as "refreshing" and adds, "sometimes one needs to get away from your work environment." However, she feels that one of the things that makes Rider great for her are the other theater students. "Along with their talent, they also have a wonderful work ethic."
Cheiten says that Nosuchinsky is very disciplined. And as so many performers admit, she says she always loved to entertain. "As far back as I can remember I always wanted to perform. I was always singing at family functions or dancing around, wanting – and getting – attention." She began with dance classes when she was seven years old at the Gallery in Dance in her hometown of Freehold and was soon competing in dance contests all over the country, including Las Vegas and Disney World.
Her dance instructor commented to Nosuchinsky’s mother that her young daughter had a "very expressive face." That was all the youngster needed to hear, and she was off to acting classes and summer theater camps. With her strong dance background she was a natural for the musicals that were mounted by Phoenix Productions at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank. She appeared in "The Music Man," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Carousel," "Aida," "42nd Street," and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" – all while attending junior high and high school.
In the first musical that she did, "The Music Man," her mom, a retired vocal music teacher who worked at Freehold’s Applegate School for a number of years and taught her daughter for a period of time, decided to audition as well and was cast as her stage mom. After this musical, her mom bowed out saying that it was all too stressful and that she never wanted to do another show.
Nosuchinsky’s father, who works for the state of New Jersey, isn’t a performer but loves to sing and claims he gave her the dancing genes – at which his daughter scoffs. He and her mother see most of her performances. She says, "I have always thought that I’m so blessed that I have parents who are so supportive of me."
It was her mother’s perusal of the theater newspaper Backstage that sent the daughter on auditions. At an early open call, she caught the eye of manager Tamara Markowitz. Thanks to her, she has made a number of commercials and done some modeling. One of the commercials was for MTVU, a channel many colleges and universities use, so she wasn’t exactly a new face when she arrived on campus. A number of students said they had seen her on TV.
When she considered careers, selecting theater was an easy call. "It’s really all I know," she says. She got lots of advice urging her to at least minor in something "practical." Her older sister, who teaches tap dancing in North Jersey and also in Freehold, majored in business with a concentration in finance at Montclair State University.
Nosuchinsky says, "If I set out to have a backup plan, then there will always be that thing for me to do. It’s so easy because it’s right there. Without it, I feel I will press harder because I need to." So she is focused on theater with no safety net. "My parents are with me one hundred percent to follow my passion."
Once out of college she would like to move to Los Angeles to pursue her career as she feels that at that age, she is more "marketable for film and television," but admits, "It’s scary because I don’t know anyone there."
Maybe director Dan Berkowitz, who again has flown in from Hollywood to direct his old friend Cheiten’s latest play, will be able to open a few doors for her.
Whizzer’s Island, Friday, August 17, to Sunday, August 26, Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Comic mystery by Princeton resident Marvin Harold Cheiten. Directed by Dan Berkowitz. $15. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.