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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the July 17, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Whipped Cream Comedy
New Jersey producer David Hoffman wants you to take
a bite from a delicious wedge of chocolate cheese cake, savor a sip
from your whipped-cream-topped cappuccino, and at the same time lend
an ear to the entertainment that he is presenting this summer in the
cabaret space at the George Street Playhouse. This time it’s not a
roundup of the usual cabaret suspects. Instead Hoffman wants us to
enjoy a festival of short plays consisting of two different programs.
Running Thursday through Saturday nights through August 17, the programs
will showcase the work of well-known and lesser-known writers of both
light drama and heavy comedy.
The first series of plays (running through Saturday, July 27), under
the umbrella title "On The Edge," as well as the second series
"Dangerous Curves" (playing August 1 to 17), were selected
by Hoffman after months of searching for plays with substance that
would be easy to take in a relaxed atmosphere. There are eight plays
in each series, most lasting about 10 minutes in length.
"There is no stage, so the actors are directed to move around
the room and some may indeed invade your space," he says, also
stressing that "they are genuine plays that have characters who
you will believe have a life before and after the play." I am
relieved to hear him add, "the audience is not expected to interact
with the actors as in a murder mystery."
Only two plays fall into the sketch category. "I picked them because
they are classics," says Hoffman. One is "The Frog and the
Peach" by the renowned British "Beyond the Fringe" team,
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. It centers on a man who can’t seem to
figure out why the restaurant business might not be for him. Hoffman
also expresses special enthusiasm for another golden oldie — "The
Argument Clinic" — about a man who visits an office to purchase
of all things, a disagreement. Hoffman pulled that one out of the
Monty Python hamper.
Hoffman’s education, which includes a history BA from Northwestern
University in 1980 with a minor in math education, and his years teaching
in those fields, didn’t exactly set the stage for his current career
as a producer. "Except for doing some stand-up comedy and improvisational
work at Northwestern, I found the theater department too incestuous."
But, as this new venture attests, he is committed to making a leap
as an entrepreneur. He has, however, been involved in theater for
20 years and is no stranger to producing evenings of short plays.
This style of cabaret theater springs from a concept with which Hoffman
is very familiar.
It was in the early ’90s that the New Jersey native (now Summit resident)
began producing evenings of short plays on the second floor of Tierney’s
Tavern in Upper Montclair. He was part of the Montclair Theater Project
that would evolve into the 12 Miles West Theater Company. Prompted
by his early experience as a writer and as a performer of improvisational
theater Hoffman says that he always liked the idea of (what he calls)
"theatrical parties in a non-traditional setting." It’s time
to party again as Hoffman showcases his new company "Cafe Theater",
in its premiere season.
Audiences will find themselves getting more familiar with the characters
in these plays than they ever have before. "You can be enjoying
your coffee and biscotti and a new play might begin starring the people
sitting at the table next to you," says Hoffman. "We’re driving
for that intimate sense of theater, giving every audience member literally
a front row seat for the show."
"I’ve always liked putting actors and audiences close together
in a non-traditional setting," he says, "and to find excellent
10-minute plays that ask compelling questions. It is significant that
most of the characters in these plays have to make important decisions."
In comparing them to full-length plays, it is the difference between
a jingle and a song. "Playwrights love the form," he believes,
"because they can try something experimental and bold."
Among the roster of playwrights is Jenny Lyn Bader, who is a frequent
contributor to the New York Times Week in Review and has been commissioned
to write for the Humana Festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville.
Three of Bader’s plays have been picked for the Cafe Theatre including
"Betrayal," about a pair of competitive girlfriends. In this
play Hoffman says "the two girlfriends actually roam the room
looking for men." "Popcorn Sonata" is about a babysitter
with better instincts than the child’s mother, and "One Night
At Your Local Superstore," finds an author at a book signing sharing
a secret with a fan to surprising results.
Sid Frank of Springfield has seen many of his works commissioned and
performed all across the Garden State. A program consisting solely
of his work was produced at the Playwrights Horizons in New York under
the title "Kosher Franks." He has also written songs that
have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Sarah Vaughan, and
Johnny Ray, including the hit "Please, Mr. Sun." Frank’s contribution,
"Suicide Squeeze," is about an obsessive New York Yankees
fan who fails to come to terms with their World Series loss and must
be talked off a ledge by the team’s star player.
Plays in the first program designed to keep you "On
the Edge" include "Louis and Dave" by Norm Foster, in
which a friend decides to reveal long-suppressed and shocking secrets
to his pal during a routine night of driving and cruising for girls.
A wife resorts to some extreme measures in an effort to cure her husband’s
smoking addiction in "For Better" by Greg Scot Mihalik. Another
Mihalik entry is "The Doubts," in which the idle chatter of
two men gets out of hand. Rounding out the first bill is Robert Clyman’s
"Famous Ali," a play about a recent immigrant from Afghanistan
who tries to con his way past the American INS agents.
A lovelorn psychic; a man with a mechanical doll; TV soap characters
that enter the life of a drugstore clerk; and alternative lifestyles
are among the subjects by writers Mark Harvey Levin, Cathy Celesia,
Amy Fox, Ritchie Devet, David Dewitt, and Jim Doyle Harvey that make
up the season’s second series aptly called "Dangerous Curves."
Among a wide assortment of directors being assembled is Andrea Arden,
co-founder and artistic director of the theater company Pendulum,
where she directed work that was presented both in New York and the
Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Another director is Hannah
Fujiki DeVorkin, whose past credits include "Waiting for Tadashi"
in the Next Stage series at George Street Playhouse.
Not heeding Max Bialystock of "The Producers," whose motto
is Never Use Your Own Money, Hoffman has bravely used his own
money, around $25,000, to produce this "not for profit" venture.
"I went the `not for profit’ route to enable institutions to help,
not necessarily with money but with resources. I’ll consider it a
success if I break even," he says, giving credit to New Brunswick’s
Mason Gross School of the Arts for its support. He mentions the accessibility
and friendliness of playwright Lee Blessing, who is head of the playwriting
department. Although George Street Playhouse is not a participant
in the productions, Hoffman says George Street is enthusiastic about
his use of the cabaret space.
"I’m currently working with one of the local pastry chefs to create
special desserts to complement the plays," says Hoffman, who will
be there opening night, "possibly waiting on tables," and
undoubtedly sampling "anything with chocolate." You may be
sure he is also watching the response of the audience to his cleverly
conceived evening of friendly, intimate, and tasty theater.
— Simon Saltzman
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 908-273-3946. Cafe theater features
eight short comedies served with coffee, cappuccino, and pastries.
$18.50 includes first cup of coffee. Performances Thursdays through
Saturdays at 8 p.m., to August 17.
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