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Member - NJ Repertory Co., TriState Actors Theater
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The Weir at TriState
Tower of Babble at Bank Street
The Importance of Being Earnest at Holmdel
Zoo Story at Black Box
And Then There Were None at Shadowlawn
Butterflies are Free at Shadowlawn
Bus Stop at Monmouth Players
Diary of Anne Frank at TriState
A Life in the Theater at Two River


June 9, 2006

Butterflies Are Free
By Tom Chesek correspondent

A good cae of onstage 'Butterflies'

Ignore the title, a quote from Dickens best relegated to a vintage school-book cover or inspirational fridge magnet. Better still, try to disregard the whole central device of the differently abled character emerging from his cocoon and spreading his wings - a potentially sticky swamp of molasses in the wrong hands.

Now on stage at Monmouth University's Lauren K. Woods Theatre, the Leonard Gershe play "Butterflies Are Free" is a modestly framed snapshot from that uncertain era between the so-called golden age of Broadway and the bloated, bus-trip British imports that would come to dominate the latter day White Way.

Produced and directed by the school's music and theater arts chairman John J. Burke - and playing Wednesday through Sunday evenings on the West Long Branch campus until June 18 - "Butterflies" is the first in the school's annual Shadow Laen Stage presentations for 2006.

While the straight script by the late composer and librettist Gershe (a 1969 hit staring Keir Dullea, Eileen Heckart and a young Blythe Danner)is basically a contemporary to "Little Murders" and "Gemini" - two very edgy black comedies that Burke has staged in recent seasons - it's actually more nimble and streamlined than those often violent and foul-mouthed slices of domestic fear and loathing. It's also much more commonly revived (in fact, it was staged at a Shore-area dessert theater just a few months back). As such, it comes across as considerably less dated than many post-Summer of Love extravaganzas.

Set in a seedy Manhattan apartment that's a half-finished study in exposed plumbing, stained sheetrock and orange crate functionality (actually another characteristically detail intensive environment by designer Fred Del Guericio), "Butterflies" unfolds over the course of a single day; a day in which two next-door neighbors meet cute.

Separated only by a locked bedroom door and a "Kleenex" wall, Don (Brendan Ryan) and Jill (Brianna Trautman-Maier) are a couple of new arrivals in the big city, with a lot in common: She's an aspiring actress who's escaped a short-lived marriage in L.A.; he's an aspiring singer-songwriter who's loosed himself from the Saks Fifth Avenue apron strings of his mother, a "tight assed matron from Scarsdale."

As Jill finds out about 10 minutes into the procedings, he's also been blind since birth - a fact that the confident Don casually glosses over, even as it's provided subject matter for an irksomely successful series of children's books authored by Don's mother, Mrs. Baker (Linda Cameron). For the young man in the midst of a two-month trial separation from his overprotective mom, Jill is more than just a barefoot, peasant-bloused, post-hippie hottie next door who sports false eyelashes and misquotes Dylan Thomas. She's the personification of another way of life; an effervescent muse and a free spirit with no qualms about stripping down to her undies and climbing the ladder to his rickety loft bed.

Even for the sightless Donnie, things take on an entirely different aspect by the pall of evening than they do by the light of day - with a surprise visit by Mrs. Baker and an impending audition for Jill detouring the plot into some turbulent and unpredicatble waters. This nominal romantic comedy navigates some pretty dramatic channels for a good deal of its second act, and what remains of lasting value in Gershe's script is the bittersweet and finely-wrought drama of relationships at its core.

Under Burke's direction, the players (including Bob Senkewicz as a stage director of the classic casting-couch school) work hard to give their chracters a dimensionality beyond their first impressions - maybe none more than Cameron, whose supposedly domineering mom is far from the ogre she's originally painted as.

Ryan endeavors to present an unsentimental, decidedly uncorny take on a character who initially appears almost too well-adjusted - although the actor's tattoos look entirely out of place on Don, and the crief snippets we hear of his singing voice make us want to encourage the earnest young dreamer to keep his day job as a sheltered momma's boy.

In a part most famously played by young Goldie Hawn in her lovable-ditz days, Trautman-Maier is a body and brain in constant motion; exuding a neighborly 70's sexiness as well as what could only be categorized as a classically blond brand of wisdom.

Bob Senkewicz / Howell, New Jersey /