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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

On the Edge, Cafe Theatre, George Street Playhouse,

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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