Trenton’s Passage Theater brings a bit of global exploration to its stage this week. “Roundelay,” by R.N. Sandberg, is a world premiere comedy that features six actors as 10 characters searching fiercely for love. Unafraid to hunt around the world to find it, the characters appear in locales as varied as Boston, India, Kenya, and the Caribbean.
“These are characters from a variety of backgrounds from all over the world who are trying to find relationships, and approaching that in different ways,” says Sandberg. “The play traces what happens to these 10 different characters as they go through a journey to deal with those connections.”
Sandberg sees “Roundelay,” a name of a song or poem with a regular refrain, as filling a need for new plays that reflect a broader, worldwide perspective. “There aren’t a lot of American plays that are trying to get beyond a sort of narrow view,” he says. “I wanted to put people on stage and make it global.”
Sandberg sees the play’s diversity of locations and characters as well suited to area audiences. “These characters come from a wide selection of backgrounds, and I think audiences here will respond to that.”
Beyond that, Sandberg is tight-lipped about the plot of his play. “I think it was George S. Kaufman who said ‘it’s about two hours,’” Sandberg says with a laugh. “I really want audiences to come in and be surprised, and discover this [play] for themselves.”
Sandberg has a long-standing history with Passage, having served as a member of its Play Lab for the past four years. The Passage Play Lab invites area playwrights to meet on a regular basis and offer feedback and support of one another’s writing. The Play Lab has also yielded several productions in Passage’s seasons; Jessica Beford’s “Blessed Are” played at Passage earlier this season, and Princeton resident Jim Christy’s “Love in Communication” played at Passage in 2010 to acclaim, winning the prestigious Brown Martin Philadelphia Award.
“The Play Lab reflects Passage’s mission in supporting and developing playwrights from the area,” says Sandberg. And Sandberg, a professor of theater at Princeton University since 1995, certainly has a history with the region. He grew up in the suburban Philadelphia neighborhood of Drexel Hill; his mother was a bookkeeper, and his father a real life butter-and-egg man. He attended Upper Darby High School and went on to major in history with certificates in American and African-American Studies at Princeton. He received his Ph.D. from the Yale University School of Drama and holds a master’s degree in teaching from Wesleyan University.
Sandberg met his wife, Ginger Zakian, while in junior high school; today, like her husband, she teaches at Princeton University, as a professor of molecular biology. They have two children; Eric, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and Megan, a theater director in Boston.
Sandberg says he developed an interest in playwriting in his early 20s. “I decided I wasn’t going to do secondary school teaching, and I was trying to write a novel… well, it ended up absolutely awful.” He decided to change tactics. “I read in a magazine that you could produce a play off-off Broadway — at that point — for $1,000, so I thought I’d give it a shot,” he says.
Before he undertook that challenge, however, he decided to learn more about the medium. He auditioned for a production of “The Bad Seed,” the popular 1956 thriller about a sociopathic eight-year-old girl, and was cast as the girl’s father.
Sandberg’s early work was produced by a local company in New Haven; his first produced one-act play, “Bicycle Built for Two,” traced a couple’s life together in a series of “snapshot” scenes.
Since then, his work has received productions in Canada, England, Japan, Panama, and South Korea, as well as throughout the United States. His play “Can’t Believe It” won the 2005 Bonderman National Playwriting award, and “The Trials of the Massachusetts Servants” won the American Repertory Theater’s 2006 Discovering Justice contest. His play “IRL (In Real Life),” about cyber-bullying, is currently featured as an educational touring production at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse.
Sandberg cites several influences on his work. “I love Chekhov,” he says. “He’s probably the playwright that touches me the most, even though he’s very difficult to do and difficult to read much of the time.” He also cites the value of polar opposites in crediting two of his theater mentors: influential theater critic and Yale professor Richard Gilman and Yale professor Howard Stein. “Dick [Gilman] was always wanting to talk about the ideas in the plays and how they developed, and Howard was just the opposite — he wanted to talk about the passion and the humanity in plays,” says Sandberg. “The balance between the two certainly had an effect on me.”
“Roundelay” is directed by Passage’s resident director, Adam Immerwahr, who has held the position since 2009 and directed “Blood: A Comedy,” “Trenton Lights,” “Love and Communication,” “Slippery as Sin,” and “Blessed Are” at Passage, in addition to several productions in Passage’s State Street and Play Lab Festivals. “Adam has so much positive energy,” says Sandberg. “He’s always responding enthusiastically to the work I’m doing and the work the actors and designers are doing. He keeps everyone up and energized.”
“I hope audiences have a really good time,” says Sandberg about the production. “I hope they feel better when they come out than when they came in. I hope it gets them to reflect — at least a little bit — on their lives and what’s around them.”
Roundelay: A Comedy, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through April 7, $12 to $33. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.