Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
Most regional theater companies s balance the occasional new work with healthy doses of classic plays and new hits direct from New York. New Jersey Repertory Company, in the shore town of Long Branch, has admirably bucked this trend for close to twenty years, focusing almost exclusively on world premieres. Many of the works they've developed and shepherded onto the stage have traveled far and wide, to high-impact houses around the United States and Europe. Their current production, Struck by Sandy Rustin, is enjoyable enough to potentially follow this trajectory.
Struck opens in the aftermath of a bicycle accident. Vera (Susan Maris), a perpetually aspiring actress, has been hit by a sympathetic young man named James (Benjamin Puvalowski) in the East Village. She's knocked off her feet and somewhat badly bruised. We first meet her as she hobbles back into her Upper West Side apartment, determined to make sense of what has happened to her. Vera wants to believe that there is some kind of cosmic kismet at work, a worldview that her kooky, New Age neighbor Vicky (Jenny Bacon) happily encourages. But Vera's pragmatic lawyer husband Aaron (Adam Bradley) is not convinced.
Despite his skepticism, Aaron relents when Vera says that she wants to contact James. For the sake of spoilers, this is where I should stop describing the plot, as much of the enjoyment to be derived from this play comes from watching how Rustin artfully manages well-worn situations involving coincidence and chance away from cliché. There were multiple times during the performance I attended where I thought to myself okay, this is where this tightly wound coil of a story is going to full apart. To my surpriseand general delightit never did.
This is not to say the play is perfect, of course. There are more than a few moments that strain credibility. And at a brisk seventy-five minutes, it ends without answering some of the key questions that are posed. Rustin also doesn't seem to know what she wants to make of Vicky, who's clearly around to serve as the comic relief. One minute she's talking about chakras; the next, she's cursing up a blue streak. Is she Zen or is she just another foul-mouthed New Yorker? Either way, Bacon steals every scene she's in with her thoroughly entertaining performance.
The rest of the cast does not disappoint, either. Maris does well to convey Vera's desire for her life to have a purpose. Bradley is subtly funny and surprisingly moving as her supportive spouse. Puvalowskia Long Branch native and NYU student making his professional acting debutmanages to play every side of his complicated character with fine creative flair. A fifth character, played by Matthew Shepard, enters the story late, and in keeping with what I said above, the less known about his function the better. But I would be remiss not to mention that Shepard is wonderful in his brief role.
The production is slickly directed by Don Stephensona noted actor in his own rightand makes good use of NJ Rep's postage stamp-size stage. Though slightly unfinished, and perhaps not as profound as it wants to be, Struck is a delightful summer diversion.
Struck continues through Sunday, July 31, 2016, at New Jersey Repertory Theatre (179 Broadway, Long Branch). Performances run Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, with matinees on Saturday (3pm) and Sunday (2pm). Tickets ($45) can be purchased online at www.njrep.org, by phone (732-229-3166), or in person at the box office.