‘Public Ghosts — Private Stories’

George Street Playhouse tells the stories of New Brunswick with this world premiere.

By: Stuart Duncan
   Those who have seen Amadeus, either on stage or on screen, will remember the comment of Franz Josef after Mozart has played his latest composition: "Too many notes," the emperor says simply.


Anne O’Sullivan (left) and Helen Gallagher star in Public Ghosts — Private Stories, at George Street Playhouse through May 19.

   The phrase rippled though my mind as I watched the world premiere of Public Ghosts — Private Stories at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse. The work, commissioned by the theater, has been in development for three years, a time that has included thousands of interviews, a coast-to-coast partnership with a Los Angeles theater company, numerous workshops, a Spanish translation and support from the private and public sectors.
   It is intended as a tribute to the city of New Brunswick, the people of its past and their hopes for the future. Unfortunately, the play never gets specific, and that’s a real problem. This city could be anywhere.
   The final version, written by Ain Gordon and co-directed by Michael Rohd and Eric Ruffin, is the final main-stage play of the 2001-02 season and runs 90 minutes, without intermission.
   And it has too many notes. In a noble effort to identify all of the threads running through the diverse communities of the city, the playwright has forgotten that an audience can seldom focus on more than one major plot line and perhaps a subplot, if it is interesting. Here, we skip blithely from generation to generation, century to century — Hungarian household to African-American, Hispanic to Jewish, past to present.
   A cast of 14, equally divided between professional and non-professionals, portrays dozens of real-life people, often finding ways of establishing sharp insights with small touches. They move like chess pieces around a set covered with boxes and tree trunks. But the evening has the feel of a staged reading, not a staged play. It is more Spoon River Anthology than Our Town; the history is oral, not visual.
   Some of the moments, however, will linger on the memory: the patrolman, Robert (played exquisitely by Shawn Elliott) delivering Maria’s (Maria Tola) stillborn baby and remembering a few phrases of long-ago Spanish. An aged John Bartley (played by Victor Love with fine understatement) whom we have watched love and lose his childhood sweetheart (Cherene Snow), clasping the hands of a young man (Lamont Stephens), whom he alone realizes is his grandson, not daring to give away his secret.
   A Hungarian mother (Helen Gallagher), who marches purposefully on stage and announces simply, "I’m dead," and then watches in amazement as the young daughter she believed too Americanized (Mara Stephens) makes the Thursday-night noodles for her family, just as she did for years. Or the much-abused Irish servant-girl (Anne O’Sullivan), finally rebelling against her master and killing him.
   But the major flaw of the evening is that, touching as these moments are, we have not found the heart of the city. Mr. Gordon’s metropolis might be on either coast. We never get acquainted with New Brunswick’s special qualities, if indeed there are any. We never hear about the institutions of the place, not even a significant mention of Rutgers.
   The ghosts may be public, the stories may be private, but the notes do not play a melody.
Public Ghosts — Private Stories continues at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through May 19. Performances: Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2, 7 p.m.; May 11, 2, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $18-$44. For information, call (732) 246-7717. On the Web: www.georgestplayhouse.org