The artsy township of Montclair has been without a professional theater since the Luna Stage moved out of its Bloomfield Avenue home in 2010.
That’s about to change, thanks to producer Eric Alter’s ambitious plans for his 12-year-old theater company, Apricot Sky, which became an Actors Equity company about a year ago.
Along with its new professional status comes a new home — the Grove Street Theater — and two opening productions with Jewish themes: Avi Hoffman’s one-man play Still Jewish After All These Years: A Life in the Theatre and Hanky Panky, a brand-new comedy with music, also starring Hoffman, will be performed in repertory from April 17 through May 6.
Over coffee and a nosh in an office across the street from the Deron School, where the theater is housed, Alter and Ed Schiff, the company’s general manager, discussed the excitement and nervousness that accompany the new venture. The space — rented to Apricot Sky by a local patron of the arts for $1 — serves as box office, rehearsal hall, set and costume shop, and a place for acting lessons and workshops.
Alter, who has been writing scripts and planning productions for more than a decade, founded Apricot Sky because “there was no theater in Essex County that’s dedicated to presenting new works, and that’s one of our goals.”
With the Actors Equity designation, Alter, 42, can use professional actors in Apricot Sky productions, which he hopes will draw a larger audience. “It’s been a big leap. For 12 years, I did shows that I wrote and produced from scratch…. I did a ton of work, and now going to the Equity category and working with [professional] people, it’s been an experience.”
“I’m used to having a ton of control and it’s nice to have other people you can rely on,” said Alter. “Every time you do something new, there’s always something to be apprehensive about…, but I think we have all our ducks in a row.”
He does all this on top of his day job as director of the Deron School, which serves learning disabled students.
“The community of Montclair has just opened their arms to us. They want professional theater back,” said Schiff, 65 and a veteran of five decades in the theater.
He believes they couldn’t have a better kick-off to the venture. “Sometimes you just get blessed with unbelievable talent and you want to use that talent, and this is Avi Hoffman. How could you get a talent like that and not have vehicles for him?”
Hoffman will begin an Off-Broadway run of Still Jewish — the third in a series of auto-biographical plays about his life in the theater — this summer; Schiff gave him the opportunity to fine-tune it by showcasing it as one of the inaugural pieces at the Grove Street Theater.
Hanky Panky, written by Livingston resident Charles Gruber and Charles Goldman, is about postwar Jewish immigrant parents coping with their children’s assimilationist ways. A staged reading was held last year at the Livingston Public Library (starring as the family matriarch award-winning actress Tovah Feldshuh).
“When we happened to come across all this incredible Jewish talent,” said Schiff — “the playwrights are Jewish, the director is Jewish, the producer is Jewish, the stars are Jewish…”
“You let one of those Jews in the door,” Alter interjected.
Hoffman joined in the conversation by phone from his home in Florida. The recession has been “really tough on a lot of theaters, so to have a new theater come on line is very exciting,” he said. “To do a world premiere is always very exciting, and a chance to do my new show in anticipation of a New York opening couldn’t be more thrilling.”
Hoffman denied that these offerings — given that one of his signature characters is a personification of Menasha Skulnik, a legend of the Yiddish stage in the 1930s — would be of interest primarily to an older crowd.
“I get that a lot,” said Hoffman. “The truth of the matter is that older audiences can certainly appreciate what we’re doing…but the appeal goes far beyond older audiences. It’s fascinating to see when the children and grandchildren of these older audiences come to see shows like mine — and what I anticipate Hanky Panky will be — because they fall in love with the ability to learn something and enjoy something about their culture that they don’t know.
“It’s a discovery of a whole new world.”
Nor are the plays aimed at predominantly Jewish audiences, Hoffman said.
“With my shows, the critics — both Jewish and non-Jewish — really go out of their way to say you really don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate good humor, good theater, a good story. So many people who live in the United States of America come from families who were immigrants, whether they were Italian or Irish or Puerto Rican or South American or European. We are in an immigrant country and I think Hanky Panky and my show both deal with the repercussion of the immigrant experience.
“It may be told from a Jewish perspective, but the experience is the same,” he said.
Schiff reminded Hoffman of an anecdote he related at “Munch with a Mensch,” an event held at the studio in March to introduce Hoffman and the Grove Street Theater to the community.
He had been in Japan, Hoffman had told the gathering, where he saw a production of Fiddler on the Roof. “The locals said, ‘This show is popular in America? But it’s so Japanese.’”
Hoffman said Fiddler is one of the most popular shows in Japan “because it deals with tradition and family and culture, and it deals with issues that we all, in every culture and every country, deal with in one way or another. This is the shared experience.
“People of all culture and all backgrounds can come to these two shows at the Grove Theater and have a good time.”
Supplementing the cast of Hanky Panky are Gordon Stanley, a veteran of the Broadway stage who comes from a family of cantors, and Susan Cohen DeStefano, a singer who has also served as a cantor for Congregation Beth Am in Teaneck, among other locations.
Hoffman praised the show’s writers and fellow actors. “It’s going to be very exciting. I can’t wait.”