Robert I. Gottlieb reports.
I grew up in New Jersey – a town called South Orange – and so I’m intimately familiar with the combination of grime, pride, swamp smell and small town that contributes to our…stately reputation. It’s both a wonderful place to grow up and an awful place to get stuck. It is against this New Jersey backdrop that the first of James Crafford’s delicately crafted one-act plays for the American Theatre of Actors takes place. Dead Old Lady from New Jersey draws more than just its title from the garden state. The leads at the center of the play, two crooks trying to pick up the pieces following a botched heist, use aliases based on Jersey towns. Lodi (Anthony J. Gallo) and Hoboken (Eugene Kopman) exist like tertiary characters in a Jersey mob movie – guys who know somebody who knows somebody who knows Tony Soprano. Lodi was set on retirement following one last job, but when the eponymous old Lady from New Jersey winds up a casualty to the crime, his plans go up in smoke. Nicole Schalmo’s Hackensack shows up in the plays second half and, gun in hand, she conveys the plays central tension: to escape the heat, the crooks need to leave New Jersey.
Anthony’s performance is remarkable in its simplicity. He is so genuinely Jersey, you can almost see his name carved into a turnpike exit sign. Schalmo brings with her a brilliant energy. Her electric voice, as much as the pistol she’s toting, coaxes her male counterparts to shut up and listen. When Hackensack mentions Idaho and Iowa they sound as foreign to our brutish leads as the moons of Saturn – it’s very New Jersey and very hilarious. The story’s proximity to Reservoir Dogs means Crafford is treading well-worn territory, but the cast’s wonderful performances, along with the simple direction of Laurie Rae Waugh, prevents this story from feeling generic. Dead Old Lady is well grounded, funny and leaves us with a powerful insight straight from those smelly Jersey hometowns just off the turnpike: even if Jersey is ‘purgatory,’ as Hackensack claims, it’s still home.
The second play of the evening, The Killing of The Snow Fox could be in any wooded town in America. I left convinced that this was another Jersey story. The power of Crafford’s writing is such that others in the audience were reminded as much of their childhood in, say Illinois, as I was transported to mine in New Jersey. It centers on Adam Pine’s Bobby, a high-school senior more interested in his pets and plants than he is in more ‘masculine’ pursuits like hunting and woman. His father, John, thinks the boy ought to be left alone, while his mother, Margie, encourages Bobby to chase more ‘normal’ things. His friend, Gerry, lurks in the corner with a hunting rifle, further threatening to derail Bobby’s peace of mind. Crafford’s beautiful writing reminds us all how difficult it is to live with the expectations of friends and parents, particularly in high school. Through the eyes of tranquil Bobby (Adam Pine) we are reminded how the best intentions of our friends and family can destroy an otherwise good kid.
The real star here is the father-son relationship between Bobby and Ken Coughlin’s John. John’s simple love and guidance towards his confused son give the audience something to root for. Coughlin is stellar and at the play’s climax it is John my heart broke for.
Other performances are mostly excellent. I particularly liked Nicole Arcieri as the precocious Mary Joy. The cast, however, stumbles in its handling of everyday, suburban homophobia. When Gerry calls Bobby a ‘fag’ its proceeded by an almost comically long dramatic pause. Crafford is trying to address the menace of everyday homophobia – how best friends calling each other hurtful words in jest can have lasting consequences – but its handled too menacingly. Characters like Gerry and Margie risk becoming one-dimensional homophobes instead of real, layered people, who sometimes use disgusting language. Still, everything registers in Pine’s subtle eyes and Bobby’s final monologue resonates powerfully. Waugh’s direction here is first-rate and the play never strains too hard to show us this slice of suburbia.
Both Snow Fox and Dear Old Lady succeed in giving us an intimate picture of death and disaster in familiar environments. Crafford and Waugh have accomplished something unique here. It’s a transporting evening – even for those of us who aren’t from New Jersey.