I spent Saturday evening at a reading of “Heels over Head,” a comedic work-in-progress by playwright Susan Goodell presented by the Tri-State Actors Theater. The reading was performed at SpringBoard in Newton, NJ, a storefront for startup retail businesses. The performing space was narrow; a carpeted platform in one of the stores served as a stage, while “offstage” performers sat on chairs around the platform. That, coupled with the modest lighting, would present an interesting challenge.
This reading was part of the New Plays Reading Series by the Tri-State Actors Theater. The purpose of these events is to allow playwrights to see their plays in action and hear them read by actors. Tri-State founder and artistic director Paul Meacham describes these presentations as “part of our job. If we don’t help develop these plays, who will?” Meacham, who also stage directed this performance/production, explained the importance of letting playwrights fine-tune their scripts at readings like these. “If [that script] was a piece of jewelry, you’d keep working on it.” He also identified the author as “a bona fide playwright” and one he regards highly.
The play begins at a bungee jumping event where Jake (Jason Szamreta) and Luna (Marie Wallace) meet. Jake nervously tries to make small talk with Luna, who is clearly annoyed that Jake is interrupting her attempts at deep breathing to calm herself before the jump. They are getting on each other’s nerves until they make the jump–and the lights come back up on the two of them waking up in bed together.
The two now-lovers, in an ecstasy of passion, promise to never fight and keep no secrets, all the more important since they got married some time after the jump. Moments later, it comes out that the leases on both of their apartments are running out and they can’t agree whose apartment to live in. Part of the problem is their crazy roommates: Jake’s best friend Stan (Nick Wilder) and Luna’s allegedly psychic sister Mari (Patricia Durante).
The play becomes a laugh riot as the newlyweds’ secrets start coming out: Marvin (Daniel Mian), Luna’s investment broker ex-boyfriend; Blossom (Rosemary Glennon), a member of Jake’s phobia support group with a hug-inducing fear of abandonment; and Mari’s habit of adopting wildly different personalities.
I enjoyed the play throughout, and by the end my face hurt from laughter. I mentioned in the talkbacks after the performance that there were spots where the play seemed to lack humor. However, these are important scenes for building conflict. Also, as Phil Meacham said, “Actors like to fix things. They were handed a revision on Wednesday and they had less time to fix it.” This is a helpful thing to do for a progressing script, as it becomes easier for the playwright to discover problems with the script. Otherwise, Meacham said, the actors would fix the major problems before the author could notice them. As a work in progress, the play needs work, but it’s hilarious even in its current form. The all-professional cast assembled for Saturday’s reading didn’t hurt.
When I asked playwright Susan Goodell if she could name any playwrights that inspired her, or that she admired, she responded: “In some ways I don’t seek inspiration from other playwrights. I want to preserve my own voice.” However, she did specify Christopher Durang, Terrence McNally and Kenneth Lonergan as a few of her favorite playwrights.
Susan Goodell is also the author of the play “Hope Throws Her Heart Away” and her plays have been produced in eight states.