By Madeline Schulman
Long Branch — Robert Caisley, the author of “& Juliet,” having its world premiere at NJ Rep, probably knows all about University Drama Departments, as well as what makes compelling drama. I hope that real life Drama Departments are not as full of dispute, intrigue, and violent anger bubbling below the surface as the one at the unnamed University at which the play is set. However, we can all agree that drama can’t exist without conflict, and the three characters in & Juliet have plenty of that.
Charlie (Jacob A. Ware), David (John FitzGibbon), and Annie (Nadia Brown) all want something very badly.
Charlie wants to do well as the new Drama Department member with his radical production of Romeo and Juliet. David wants the direction of the play handed back to him. He has worked at the University for thirty years, and does not like being shoved aside for a whippersnapper with no doctorate. Both men want the beautiful corner office with the spectacular view of the campus which Charlie has been awarded.
David assures Charlie, in a honeyed purr (and I have never heard a more honeyed purr than Mr. FitzGibbon’s), that he is fine with Charlie occupying the office, but David also keeps paraphrasing Teyve, singing “If I Were a Jealous Man.”
Nobody wants anything as badly as Annie wants to play Juliet. Already a senior, she has never advanced beyond maids and spear carriers, and she is not to be fobbed off with offers to paint scenery or be Assistant Director (which she sees as a glorified gofer). David, with whom she is suspiciously close, seems to have promised her the part (why else would she be so certain it is hers, since several other girls would certainly be lined up for it?).
Charlie has other ideas. Annie does not fit his idea of Juliet. He is not rejecting her because of her race, which is black, but because of her gender. His radical idea is to stage Shakespeare with all male actors, as in Elizabethan times, and he has chosen a fourteen year old high school boy for Juliet. The part is spoken for, in spite of Annie’s frantic assertion that auditions aren’t until Sunday.
Neither David nor Annie care for Charlie’s scheme. The school is in a small, conservative town, and the sight of two boys kissing as Romeo and Juliet will not be greeted well.
When it is clear that not everyone can get what he or she wants, matters deteriorate. Unwise text messages are sent, even more unwise secrets are confided, and dangerously sharp weapons are brandished.
Nadia Brown is full of passionate intensity, and nicely delineates Annie as herself and Annie as Juliet. Her male co-stars are equally good.
Jessica Parks’s ingenious set looks at first like the back of a plain wooden box marked Romeo & Juliet (a set within a set), but swivels to reveal the beautiful contested corner office.
To sum up, people quietly resolving their differences is good in real life, but people arguing, fighting and maneuvering makes for exciting theater.
As for lessons learned, guard your e-mail password, don’t keep sharp knives in your office, and if you want to put on an all-male production of Shakespeare, know your audience.
& Juliet runs through June 4 at NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at njrep.org or by calling 732-229-3166.