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Theater Notes: Hollywood or ‘Bust’

Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/03/04

Film projects are a wrap at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

While Labor Day weekend is traditionally something of a siesta for most area stages, the actors, directors, playwrights, producers and tech types who make up the quasi-official stock company at New Jersey Repertory have been laboring overtime to preserve some of their very special stuff on the much-maligned (by theater-snob types) medium of celluloid.

A close look at the actor bios in any of the NJ Rep mainstage or script-in-hand productions is enough to show that there’s no real ‘anti-cellulite’ snobbery in effect among these working actors of the tri-state area — and any longtime NJ Rep subscriber who also happens to follow the NYC-based “Law & Order” franchise on TV has surely been able to place a few familiar faces among the shows’ grand parade of suspects, witnesses and victims.

Currently in post-production — having gone before the lens in mid-July — the independent short film “Bust” is an ambitious little feature with a marked NJ Rep pedigree. The capsule crime drama was scripted by one of the most familiar faces in the Long Branch-based troupe — Dana Benningfield, who also co-stars as a Russian prostitute. The actress — seen most recently on the stage of NJ Rep’s Lumia Theatre as a young mom tempted into an extramarital affair in Mike Folie’s sweetly sour comedy “Lemonade” — has never let her leading-lady good looks interfere with her choices as an accomplished character player (“North Fork”) or as a promising new director. She appears in her own tale with a lead actor who undoubtedly rings a few bells with TV watchers: Dan Lauria, the dad from the old “Wonder Years” series — here in the somewhat uncharacteristic role of a “tough-as-nails detective investigating a mob-related murder.”

The cast under the direction of Maplewood native Duncan M. Rogers also features Rep regular Philip Lynch, an actor who’s lit up the Lumia with some stellar work in both leads (“The Adjustment”) and slightly surreal support (“Spain”). This linchpin of the NJ Rep family co-starred in the company’s very first mainstage offering, and appeared alongside director Rogers in the troupe’s inaugural script-in-hand reading, to boot. Rogers, meanwhile, has busied himself as an indie filmmaker; having completed a couple of short features — “The Able’s House is Green” and “The Reader,” the latter starring Tony winner Elizabeth Franz.

New Jersey Repertory Company members Philip Lynch and Dana Benningfield are featured in a scene from ‘Bust,’ one of several short film projects now in the works from NJ Rep regulars.

Long Branch residents who get an opportunity to view the finished film (plans are in effect to submit the work to several film festivals, and even to pitch it as a possible TV pilot) might spot yet another familiar face in a cameo — city police Sergeant Frank Rizzuto, who served the production as a Law Enforcement Consultant. He’s joined by several other community businesses and entities — including the Long Branch Arts Council, Siperstein’s, Amy’s Omelette House, Casey Jones Restaurant, Wilson’s Ice Cream, Island Grille and Attilio’s — who lent a helping hand to the homegrown opus.

Also pitching in on the project were a number of NJ Rep stalwarts — from production manager Rose Riccardi to craft services coordinator Lina Moccia — who have been integral members of the extended family headed by company founders Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas. This clannish vibe was perhaps never more apparent than in “My Rifle, My Pony and Me,” a three-day festival of short works (all of them built around the theme of the American Cowboy) presented last winter as the first in the troupe’s projected series of Theatre Brut productions — with the Brut-al weather failing to stop this sold-out showcase from assembling a virtual ‘Who’s Who’ of regional creative and performing talent; a homecoming for practically everyone who ever made a contribution to this still-young company’s already formidable legacy. The only thing this observer disliked about “My Rifle” was that all of the playlets were presented exactly one time only, ostensibly never to be seen again — until now. With the formation of NJ Rep Film Brut Production Company, director Eric Stannard is getting underway with plans to film several of the cowboy-inspired one-acts for posterity. While the segments have yet to be cast or even selected, there’s been mention made of two pieces that originally involved the talents of Dana Benningfield: the Folie monologue “There’s a 200 Foot Cowboy in Istanbul” (in which she starred as a disillusioned but sadly seductive tobacco company exec) and Dickie Nessinger’s ‘Harvest Moon,’ which she directed as a gently hilarious tall-tale slice of magical realism.

New Jersey Repertory inaugurates its new season this October with a production of Lee (“A Walk in the Woods”) Blessing’s sociopolitical satire “Whores.”



 

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L.B. police sergeant a rookie on the film set

Coaching actors on set turns into film debut for L.B. cop

BY CHRISTINE VARNO
 Staff Writer


Dan Laura and Frank Rizzuto

Long Branch Police Officer Sgt. Frank Rizzuto (r), acts in a scene in the short film “Bust” with Dan Lauria (l), who played the father in the television show, “The Wonder Years.”

 

 

LONG BRANCH — When he’s not protecting the streets of Long Branch, Sgt. Frank Rizzuto can soon be seen fighting crime on the big screen.

Rizzuto, 34, who has been with the city police department for eight years, will be making his first-ever cameo appearance in “Bust,” a short film that wrapped up shooting in Long Branch recently.

“Bust” is a production by Sandbox Partners, in association with Freshwater Films and the New Jersey Repertory Co. in Long Branch.

Rizzuto isn’t the only rookie involved in the film. “Bust” will be the first film produced by the NJ Rep, a company that focuses on producing new works by contemporary playwrights.

“Film is something that the rep company is hoping to do more of,” explained Dana Benningfield, a member of the company who wrote and starred in “Bust.” “Theater is temporary. It is the magic of theater and the frustration of theater. It is not long lasting.”

NJ Rep was established in 1997, staged its first full production in 1999 and is ready to start something new, according to Suzanne Barabas, the artistic director for the company.

“Since we are planning on going into films, we thought ‘Bust’ would be a worthwhile project to get into,” Barabas said. “It is going to be an artistic film. I am anxious to see it.”

Not as anxious as the local star, Rizzuto, who did not know he was going to be in the film until the day before filming.

The film takes place in an interrogation room in a police department where a mob-related murder is being invested. It turns out to be a bust gone wrong.

Rizzuto was asked by Diane Munoz, the director of marketing with the company, to bring his police background to the set and show the actors how to play the part of a real cop. He said he showed them how to wear their ID badges, their holsters and their identification on the belts.

When the actor, scheduled to play the part of a cop assisting in an arrest, was unable to be present the day of shooting, Rizzuto was asked to step up.

“I said ‘No problem,’ ” Rizzuto said. “I had no lines and just walked across the set. It was great.”

He said the experience has given him a new respect for actors.

“It took a day to shoot the same scene from different angles that would probably be a minute of the movie,” Rizzuto said. “It was very interesting.”

He said the research done for the film was impeccable and the set was dead on, down to broken old printers in the corner of the interrogation room.

“My job started off as advisement,” Rizzuto said. “When they asked me to be in the movie, I was able to add authenticity to it.”

“He was incredibly helpful,” Benningfield said. “He was perfect. He was the real thing. It’s nice to say in the credits, Frank Rizzuto as himself.”

Benningfield stars in the film along with Philip Lynch, also a member of the company, and Dan Lauria, who is known for his role as the father on the television show “Wonder Years.”

The film was directed by Duncan M. Rogers, a member of the company since its inception who starred in the first reading at the company, “Horrors of Doctor Moreau” with Lynch in 1998.

Plans are to submit the film to festivals and possibly develop it into a future television pilot, according to Barabas who said she would like to see it screened at the company’s film festival planned for the fall.

NJ Rep is putting together a festival of shorts and feature-length films, under the direction of Eric Stannard, head of the company’s film division, according to Barabas.

The film, which was produced on a budget of $16,000, is currently being edited, according to Benningfield, who said it will be about 10 minutes long and should be completed by the fall.

She said she is happy with the performances delivered during the making of the film.

“I don’t think this is the start of a great career for me,” Rizzuto said, “unless this takes off as a big series. Then maybe they’ll call me back as a good luck charm.”