Premiere Stages at Kean University has opened the 2014-15 season with a challenging new play, Janice Underwater, by Hillside, New Jersey, native Tom Matthew Wolfe. Wolfe’s play, the winner of Premiere’s 2014 Play Festival, is set in his own “backyard,” i.e., various interior locations in New Jersey and Manhattan, with references to such “cherished” landmarks as the New Jersey Turnpike, Route 22 and the Pulaski Skyway.
The “Janice” of the title (Amy Staats) is an attractive 32 year old visual artist, unmarried, unsuccesful, unhappy, unlucky, and a bit unhinged. Success, in the form of employment as an artist has eluded her in the decade since she left school. When we first meet her she is a lowly digital imaging clerk in Manhattan and is promptly terminated as the result of a bizarre, unfriendly conversation during an office Halloween party with her manager Gail (Susan Louise O’Connor). Beyond her career failure, Janice has the additional burden of a long absent schizophrenic mother (the same Susan Louise O’Connor) responsible for having set fire to the family home with young Janice inside. Little wonder that she fears that she may share the same genetic flaw as her mother. Her answer is to undergo genetic testing. The results arrive at the end of the play and, of course, are not revealed here.
Janice’s world improves in the most unlikely way. A radiator leak results in a call to the super, Paul, (Eddie Boroevich) that positively changes both their lives. Enter, Janice’s brother Jimmy (Ryan Barry) a lonely bachelor policeman who invites his now unemployed sister to return to the family home in Hillside, New Jersey to enjoy the comforts of the refurbished attic and assist with the caring for their father Michael (Daren Kelly) suffering from early dementia. Jimmy nails the suggestion with this: “Hey! C’mon! You’re in trouble! You come here and stay at my house. No shame in that. Plus it’s way more interesting to live in New Jersey. I mean every s…head with an art degree wants to live in New York and just be miserable and broke. It’s pathetic.” Along the way, Janice, has been imagining conversations with both parents that further cause her to question her sanity.
Janice Underwater is a challenging, yet, fascinating study of a dysfunctional family (Note: An all too popular theme of late) nicely directed by Jade King Carroll and blessed with an impressive group of actors. Amy Staats is perfect as the intelligent, but confused and somewhat frightened Janice. Eddie Boroevich is nothing short of terrific, as Paul the apartment super and Iraq War veteran who makes the personal journey that allows him to move on with his life (see the play to understand this reference). The veteran actor of the cast, Daren Kelly handsomely displays his first class talent as the fiery, but confused father and ex-Marine.
Ryan Barry is properly sincere and supportive of his sister and father. He is the voice of reason (or sanity?) in this family. Now, possibly no one is enjoying their role(s) more than Susan Louise O’Connor who is spot-on as Janice’s “away with the fairies” mother… and manager in the first scene. Not to be overlooked is Daniel Pellicano who nicely handles his two short scenes with Janice. Pellicano is a theatre student at Kean. He impressed last season in the tough starring role of Jacob in Premiere’s critically acclaimed production The Beautiful Dark.
Director Jade King Carroll has been assisted by a first class creative team: Caite Hevner Kemp is responsible for the clever moving sets, the scrim for both the actors and the artistic projection; Nadine Charlsen the lighting design; Dori Strober the costume design; Janie Bullard sound design; and Karen Cahill props. Dale Smallwood handled the stage manger chores. Clare Drobot is the dramaturg. Overseeing the production is Premiere Stages’ Artistic Director John Wooten.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio September 7, 2014
Janice Underwater is running until September 21 in Kean University’s Zella Fry Theatre.
Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm, with post-show discussions to follow select matinee performances. Tickets are $30 standard, $20 for senior citizens and Kean alumni, and $15 for students and patrons with disabilities. Significant discounts for groups of 10 or more apply. To make reservations or order a season brochure, please call the Kean Stage Box Office at 908-737-SHOW (7469) or visit Premiere Stages online at www.kean.edu/premierestages.
Photo: Amy Staats as Janice, Susan Louise O’Connor behind the scrim. (PS)