The drama is all backstage in NJ Rep’s ‘Lily’

PHOTOS BY ANDREA PHOX PHOTOGRAPHY

Christopher Daftsios and Joy Donze co-star in “Lily,” which New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is presenting through Nov. 24.

Onstage, wearing a Stetson hat, jeans and a flannel shirt, country superstar Toby Crenshaw probably projects a regular-guy image that helps him connect with his fans. But now, as the play “Lily” begins, he’s backstage in his dressing room, minutes after his Omaha arena concert has ended. And he’s having a tantrum.

Christopher Daftsios, who has acted in many New Jersey Repertory Company plays, wrote “Lily,” which is making its world premiere at the Long Branch theater through Nov. 24. He also stars as Toby, a complicated man with a dark past whose just-another-day-on-the-road eventually turns into a once-in-a-lifetime nightmare. As directed by Sarah Norris, “Lily” is a tense, gripping drama with some well-crafted surprises. It’s also a four-character play in which each character has some depth and at least one revelatory moment.

From left, Christopher Daftsios, Adam von Pier and Tait Ruppert in “Lily.”

Getting back to that tantrum … the crowd wants an encore but Toby refuses, even though he’s contractually obligated to get back out there. The mayor of Omaha and his wife want to meet him, but he can’t be bothered.

Toby takes off the girdle that helps him maintain the illusion that he’s as slim as he used to be, and puts on a bathrobe. He downs some Jack Daniel’s and gets ready to welcome his groupie du jour. Many are vying for that honor, and it’s one of the duties of Toby’s stoic assistant, Tommy (Adam von Pier), to help him make the selection.

Tommy knows, by experience, what kind of woman Toby wants. He also, as a matter of routine, asks candidates for their driver’s licenses, so he and Toby can make sure they’re not too young.

Toby selects Haley (Joy Donze), who, according to her driver’s license, has turned 18 today. “You want me to get a cake?” Tommy asks Toby.

As she enters the dressing room, Toby, who has been having a testy exchange with his ex-wife on his cell phone, pretends he’s talking to Taylor Swift. But from the moment she steps into the room, Haley doesn’t seem like just another bimbo. When Toby pulls his Taylor Swift stunt, for instance, she lets him know she knows he’s lying, because she knows Swift is in France on this day, and it’s 5 a.m. there, now.

Haley also seems to have some kind of agenda of her own. So it doesn’t exactly shock us when Toby’s encounter with her takes some unexpected twists and turns, and he has to deal with the consequences.

Toby’s sometimes exasperated, sometimes apoplectic manager Sam (Tait Ruppert) gets involved, too, and we learn a little about Toby and Sam’s history together. This is a play that takes place over just a couple of days, but we get a sense of what Toby’s entire life has been like. It’s quite a playwriting feat that Daftsios is able to accomplish that even though the entire play takes place in a dressing room.

In a nice touch, we also learn about what music meant to Toby — in his younger, more unjaded days — and Haley, Tommy and Sam all get to express themselves musically. Tommy and Sam’s music, in particular, really help us understand what these characters are all about.

Scenic designer Jessica Parks does a nice job with the dressing room, which looks luxurious enough to befit Toby’s status as a star, but also seems kind of bland and anonymous — just another stop on a journey that most people would be glad to take, but that feels to Toby, at this point in his life, like a burden.

New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch will present “Lily” through Nov. 24; visit njrep.org. There is no nudity in the play, but due to adult themes, no one younger than 17 will be admitted.

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