July 22, 2020

Comedy Co-Written by Princeton Playwright Gets Online Premiere; A Family Dinner is Marred by Snarky Political Debate in “Grudges”

“GRUDGES”: Online performances are underway for “Grudges.” Presented by Knowledge Workings Theater and directed by Dora Endre, the production runs through July 24. The play is written by Princeton resident T.J. Elliott (above) and Joe Queenan. (Photo by Bill Wadman)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Robert Louis Stevenson writes, “Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge.” Late in Grudges a character adds, “Everybody in America today is the opposite of that. Let’s keep making these grudges bigger, every hour of the day!”

Grudges is presented online by Knowledge Workings Theater. T.J. Elliott, a Princeton resident, is one of the playwrights. His collaborator is author, Wall Street Journal columnist, and filmmaker Joe Queenan, whose books include If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble. “It would be crazy for me to do anything other than write comedy with Joe, because he’s a great satirist,” Elliott remarks.

Elliott’s previous theatrical activities include writing, producing, and directing two off-off-Broadway runs of the Captive Audiences revues. Regionally he has acted, taking roles in plays including The Devil’s Disciple and The Dumb Waiter.

Queenan “kept on pushing me to go back [into writing],” says Elliott. “I would not be here right now if it wasn’t for Joe’s brusque encouragement. Last week he said, ‘Where are the pages of the next play?’ I said, ‘Joe, I’m trying to produce this play!’”

A press release states that Elliott and Queenan “formed Knowledge Workings in order to write and self-produce their ‘problem comedies’: theatrical works that explore difficult issues in a humanistic and entertaining fashion … they seek to provoke discussion and understanding of issues and ideas critical to our time such as race, religion, and polarization.”

The first Knowledge Workings production was Alms, whose off-Broadway Equity Showcase enjoyed a sold-out run at Theaterlab in New York City. Elliott explains that he and Queenan “were interested in the relationship that people of different generations have to the Catholic Church.” He adds that Grudges explores “polarity in families.”

Elliott came to Princeton 17 years ago, after being hired as chief learning officer at Educational Testing Service. He met Queenan — whom he has known for 25 years — when both were living in Tarrytown, New York. “I met him on the basketball court; we played in a league together,” Elliott recalls, adding, “our families started to socialize; we’d spend Christmas together.”

Discussing the inception of Grudges, Elliott recalls that Queenan “started to talk about two characters whom I knew in Tarrytown, who were just complete polar opposites, but they both justified their political positions. I said, ‘That’s a play … what if it’s two brothers who haven’t talked to each other since 2016?’ We were having this conversation in early 2018; the play is set before the 2018 midterm elections.”

Faith Vergaretti McCarthy (portrayed by Lynne Otis) arranges a dinner between her husband, Matthew McCarthy (John Blaylock), and Matthew’s older brother, Paul (James Lawson). She secures a promise from both brothers that the names “Trump” and “Obama” will not be mentioned.

This promise is quickly broken. The evening begins cordially enough, but soon the brothers start peppering their conversation with caustic quips about the other’s preferred political candidates and views. A desperate Faith interminably tries to be a peacemaker, but her attempts to redirect the conversation toward more pleasant subjects become increasingly futile.

This is no small source of frustration for Faith, who has motives beyond mending the familial rift. She hopes that Paul, a successful author, can change the fortunes of the struggling publishing business she runs with Matthew.

Elliott remembers an audience member’s reaction: “’How did you know what went on at my Thanksgiving table?’ I said, ‘Well, it went on at my Thanksgiving table, too!’”

He adds, “What’s been interesting is that so many people have had these strong reactions to the play. It’s their family; it’s their brother. Or they’re the person in the middle, and they have to be the referee.”

He emphasizes that Grudges is “not a play that portrays one side as wrong, and the other side as right. In fact, someone said that this is kind of a ‘pox on both your houses’ play. I wouldn’t describe it that way, but that is the way one audience member interpreted it. If it comes down anywhere, it comes down towards the wife … who’s just trying to get people together.”

“Theater should be an opportunity to engage with ideas in a compelling and fun way, and I think that’s what happens here,” Elliott continues. “Many people came and said, ‘Wow, the older brother … I found him charming! I found him persuasive.’ That’s part of our point: people harden into these positions, and they can’t just talk about something else. They can’t let it go — hence the title, Grudges.”

Also in attendance at the dinner are Candy Cruz (Jasmine Dorothy Haefner), a young woman with whom Paul is in a relationship; and later, Faith’s friend and next-door neighbor Jerry Marcus (Andre Montgomery), who visits the house to apologize for an extremely unfortunate incident involving Candy.

Ed Altman serves as a Narrator, reading the stage directions — often with the urgency of a news anchor. Zoom is not a replacement for live theater, but it does have potential as a successor to mid-20th-century radio dramas.

Elliott and Queenan began drafting the play in early 2018. A live table reading was held in October 2019; another reading was held in May, via Zoom. “Once you get to a table reading vast changes happen, because good actors make us understand the possibilities,” Elliott enthuses. “They also make us understand the extraneousness of certain things: [we realize] that actress can just raise her eyebrow, and we can cut half a page.’”

He also appreciates director Dora Endre’s contribution. “She really seems to get what the dynamic is here,” he says. “She has a wonderful visual sense. I also was impressed with how she’s managing the communication, without that ability as a director to take somebody for a cup of coffee and talk things through. She’s done a wonderful job of getting them all to collaborate with each other, and with her.”

Every actor has been given a white backdrop, giving the illusion of the cast members occupying the same space. Endre keeps the pacing tight, letting the tension rise slowly but steadily, until it boils over late in act two. While the show would benefit from the energy afforded by a live performance, the changing of screens for each actor’s speech punctuates the play’s rhythm.

The electronic aspect echoes a line of dialogue. When Faith reminds Matthew how long it has been since the brothers spoke to each other, he retorts that he follows Paul on Instagram. The isolation of Zoom underlines the point that even when the brothers are in the same room, it is difficult for them to bond, because each is stuck in his mindset.

Elliott wants audiences to have “a good time, and [be] thinking about whether it isn’t possible to let go of these constant arguments for the length of a family dinner; to not always have to be one up on the other person — pointing out what their inconsistencies, what you perceive as their hypocrisy.”

“Theater is critical for being able to inspire us to think about things in a different way. It’s such an important part of our lives, and that’s the joy that comes out of doing this, even under these circumstances,” Elliott concludes. “We’re getting to do theater.”

“Grudges” will be presented online through July 24. For tickets, show times, and further information visit knowledgeworkings.com.