“The New Jersey Book of the Dead” is Jason Grote’s Reva Shiner Award winning play at the Bloomington Playwrights Project. It is set in New Jersey, a screen links pre-9/11 dates with dates from Egyptian history, and there is one scene that mixes a faux-Egyptian ceremony with offerings of modern elements. The BPP production is skillfully directed by Jeremy Wilson and powerfully realized by a cast with some very strong actors.
Playwright Jason Grote is a veteran of New York political street theatre. As the Republican Convention was going on he was out in the streets dressed in a President Bush style Air National Guard uniform in full clown makeup with the words “Mission Complicated” on his back. In his “blog” Grote says that some of the clown shtick was “pretty darned funny.” Irony and Ironies abound in “The New Jersey Book of the Dead,” but none are funny.
The main setting for the play is a phone “boiler room” for a firm that deals in data. In Dathan Powell’s imaginatively conceived and neatly executed set, the crew of office-temps are wired into their phones and automatically monitored by their own computers. A decade or two ago the scene would have been a typing pool with IBM Selectrics and a supervisor walking up and down the rows. Centuries ago it might have been the benches of a galley with each chained to their own oar and a master with a drum to set the tempo and a whip to enforce it.
Beating the drum and using the whip is Alvaro played potently by the BPP’s Artistic Director Richard Perez. Alvaro is a really slimy character; he kisses up to those above him and kisses down to some of those below him. Somehow Perez manages to bring dimension to this middle level monster as a man shaped in part by his situation. Throughout “The New Jersey Book of the Dead” Roshaunda Ross appears as Elizabeth a company rep’ for a computer surveillance system called “Omnivore.” Omnivore is an all-purpose business employee monitoring control product. It won’t make coffee, but I can tell you when coffee is made, who gets up to drink it, how many cups they have and even whether they take cream or sugar. No matter what the business conditions are Elizabeth appeared ready with an enthusiastically delivered speech about the wonders capitalism in general and Omnivore in particular.
Meredith Mills in a sensitive wide ranging and moving performance plays Diana, the most successful of the temps. Diana is a woman with a complexly daunting life. Her husband, played with nice restraint by Tim Ryder, is a crazed, demented African-American who dies when some tough street types set him afire. Diana worries that her under supervised eleven year old son Eddy, played with a real feel for soul of a young boy, by Tijideen Rowley, is doing bad things with a neighbor. She’s also frightened because Eddy keeps seeing his father’s ghost and seems to be showing some of the father’s early symptoms of dementia.
A bright spot in Diana’s life is her love for another woman, Cassie, played by Lori Garraghty. Garraghty looks a little like a young Ellen DeGeneress and she brings DeGeneress’s freshness and attractiveness to the part. Cassie is a fledgling union worker and she enlists Diana to secretly organize the phone answerers. When a weak link, Terry, the office’s transsexual played by Julia Weiss, is forced to fink, every one is fired. Cassie and the union are unable to offer anything, but token support. Although Diana is offered a management job, she sticks to her loyalty and quits and she breaks up with Cassie.
In the finale of “The New Jersey Book of the Dead,” there’s the frightening sound of a crash and rolling explosions with a date and time screen showing 8:46 EDT on September 11, 2001. As for our whole country, the tragedy is a catalyst. All the elements of the play come together. There’s a heart warming scene as love brings Diana and Cassie back to make a home together, and a mind chilling scene as Elizabeth is busily riding the terror with a new plug for Omnivore, now a tool of home land security.
There are final performances of Jason Grote’s play, “The New Jersey Book of the Dead” at the Bloomington Playwrights Project, Friday and Saturday at eight.