Joseph John Battista never ceases to amaze. His directorial work over the years - sometimes on subpar scripts - often results in strong entertaining productions that can take plays to an entirely new level with the use of multi-media elements, creative blocking and a sense for dynamic visualization that is nothing short of impressive. Battista, no stranger to dissecting just about every script he gets his hands on, knows exactly what to look for, and how to bring it to life. So, imagine all the things he can do with an inventive story, and a strong, well-crafted play. That is precisely what he has accomplished with Theater For The New City’s production of Claude Solnick’s wonderful new play, A Life in The Rye. This play, running until November 24th in the Cabaret Theatre, is absolutely a must see.
For Mr. Battista, who also happens to be the Artistic Director of the historic 13th Street Repertory Theatre (another well-known, downtown institution), the formula seems to include great casting, and a masterful use of space that captures your imagination from the minute the play opens. With the subject being one of literature’s most iconic and respected (albeit traumatized) authors, J. D. (Jerry David) Salinger, it is no surprise this production dazzles.
Solnick manages to give life and presence to this American icon by not only telling his story, but by bringing Salinger’s greatest literary creation, Holden Caulfield, to life on the stage. For those that are not familiar with the story of how the novel, The Catcher in The Rye, almost never happened, and how the assassination of John Lennon dragged Salinger’s classic novel and his protagonist, Caulfield, into the depths of one of modern history’s darkest moments, this play is a great place to begin, especially on this, the 100th Anniversary of Salinger’s birth.
Battista’s unique staging brings the action to life in a cafe of sorts, with most of the characters seated on stage from the very start. Entrances are spontaneous, the action is fast-paced and dynamic, and there is an almost dreamlike effect with the use of impressive lighting and sound design by Allison Hollman that enhances the action, and creates layers to the play. This is all part of Mr. Battista’s signature style. Smoke machines, a rhythmic drum beat courtesy of actor Harry Bainbridge (who also plays killer Mark Chapman) work perfectly throughout the story. The actors, a mix of young and seasoned, equity and non-equity players, excel in this nonstop, 90-minute show.
Tom Martin as J. D.Salinger, Willem Long as Holden Caulfield (and Young Salinger), are energetic in this non-stop action. Janel Koloski as Oona O’Neil is a standout, and as the women in Salinger’s life, Olivia Osol, Annalisa Plumb, Alexandra Laliberti, and Vilma Hoda are dynamic and committed. As Salinger’s parents, Thami Moscovici and Tony Del Bono do a wonderful job. Kudos to Chris Johnson who shifts through the story in 5 different roles right on stage, and to Bainbridge who gives Chapman just the right amount of depth and darkness.
Shout out to Wendy Tonken, costume designer, for finding just the right look for these characters, and to the entire team for taking an otherwise uneventful blackbox venue and turning it into the setting for the life-long journey of one of literature’s most fascinating storytellers.
A Life in The Rye is now playing until November 24th at Theater For the New City. Visit their site for tickets: www.theaterforthenewcity.net