It’s the kind of drama this drama professor could do without.
Charlie (played by Jacob A. Ware), the central character of “& Juliet” — currently premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — has cast his Juliet in the campus production of “Romeo and Juliet” that he is directing, without even holding auditions. And Annie (Nadia Brown), a student with strong ideas about what she needs to do to get where she wants to be, is devastated that she has no shot at the role. And she’s not about to take no for an answer.
The play takes place on a small, picturesque campus, and the only three characters are Charlie, Annie and an older drama professor, David (John FitzGibbon). But it’s a wilder ride than its setting might suggest. Maybe too wild: Annie is so unhinged that it’s hard to believe any college professor would try to deal with her on his own, without alerting the proper campus authorities. But despite this reservation, I found the play an absorbing, exciting experience.
Writer Robert Caisley (whose past productions at NJ Rep include “Happy” and “Lucky Me”), director Marc Geller and the actors boost the melodrama to a jaw-dropping level. These characters — creatures of the theater that they are — seem incapable of making a point without making a scene. Their posture, and their phrasing, almost invariably seem chosen for dramatic effect.
“& Juliet” is, in one sense, a drama about making your way in the parallel cut-throat worlds of academics and the theater. Or, rather, Charlie and Annie are trying to create a place for themselves, and David is trying to hold on. Charlie — part helpfully, part condescendingly — wants to teach Annie what he can; the headstrong Annie, though, isn’t having any of it.
The play is very straightforward and traditional in some ways. Caisley drops broad hints about one character’s evil intentions. And when a weapon is introduced as a theatrical prop early on, we expect it to show up later in a more threatening way — and it does. In the opening scene, one character did something that made so little sense, and seemed so unnecessary, I suspected it would factor into a big twist later on (there was no other reason for it to be there) — and it does.
But most of my second thoughts about “& Juliet” are just that: Things that came to mind when I was thinking about the play, later. As the action was unfolding at a breathless pace, I enjoyed every second of it, and felt Caisley also had some interesting things to say about the price of success, and unconscious prejudices, and the thin line that separates extreme ambition from insanity.
“& Julliet” will be at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through June 4; visit njrep.org.