When playwright Stephen Kaplan was fresh out of college, he wrote the first draft of a comedy about loneliness and the universal longing for connection called TRACYJONES. He cites the famous Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby” as inspiration, and if you listen carefully, you can find a few insider references in his show. Fourteen years would pass till Kaplan took up the play again, in 2018. And, like another famous Beatles’ song, it would all fortuitously “Come Together,” culminating in a third Rolling World Premiere Production in 2022/23.
Lucky for us, Island City Stage of Wilton Manors is the National New Play Network participant who was invited to mount (with co-producers Raymond Griffis, Mark Tews, and Funding Arts Broward) the final iteration of Kaplan’s highly poignant and hilarious show in our area, after “rolling” debuts in Rochester NY and Williamston MI. Staging a new play in more than one venue – with different directors and actors in each – is a fantastic way to give new work staying power, a wider audience, and is especially crucial for the playwright who gets to see his words come alive, and obtain critical feedback for refining his script.
I’d say the creative process was pretty much complete by the time “Tracy” arrived at Island City and underwent their typically expert staging process. As an added bonus, the company’s artistic director Andy Rogow directed the show. He also secured a four-member cast of South Florida’s finest – the play stars Niki Fridh in the titular role, with Sara Grant, Irene Adjan, and Matthew Buffalo.
If only there were hands to help whenever life grew messy! Playing “Tracy,” from left, are Irene Adjan and Matthew Buffalo. Hostess with the Mostess Jillie (Sara Grant), kneels below. And flopped down on the floor is Niki Fridh, as Tracy Jones. They all star in the Rolling World Premiere of TRACY JONES by Stephen Kaplan, at Island City Stage through June 18. Photos by Matthew Tippins.
Nevertheless, Kaplan was there to observe his play, once again, on opening night. (I hope he enjoyed witnessing our ongoing hysterical laughter at literary and not-so-literary punch lines, insane slapstick action … but also silent gasps at tragic reveals.) My seatmate and I couldn’t believe that 90 minutes (with no intermission) had passed so quickly and all-engrossingly. We weren’t yet ready to leave the Jones Street Bar & Grill, the Place for Wings (and Things!) Fun Time Party Zone. We wanted more! Fortunately, we could look forward to meeting the playwright and actors for an insightful post-show Talk Back about the play’s genesis and production, the actors’ experiences onstage and off, along with technical insights into squirting (and clean up) of red hot sauce and flying celery sticks.
LONELINESS. Social isolation. Nowadays considered the leading cause of early death, and even ranked above cancer and heart disease. This public health emergency came to a head during pandemic restrictions which only served to exacerbate how isolated we’ve become despite – or rather increasingly because of – our incessant use of social media. More Facebook “friends” do not help at all; if anything, these shallow pseudo-connections are likely to make things worse. The latest studies document how even the health benefits of exercise are doubled when performed whilst interacting socially with others.
“I’ve got a feeling tonight’s gonna be a good night” is (ironically) playing when we first meet our main character: high-strung Tracy Jones (Niki Fridh), incessantly rearranges platters of chicken wings, nibbles and sliced veggies while nervously guzzling from pitchers of Diet Coke in the reserved back room party area (aka Fun Time Party Zone) of aptly named Jones Street Bar and Grill. The checkered tablecloths and abundance of beer logos, cutesy bar quotes and quaint memorabilia that pepper the place would be at home in any local Wings joint in the country. Except that this space also features a large pink “Welcome Tracy Jones” banner. (Spot on scenic and lighting design by Ardean Landhuis, sound design by David Hart, and costume design by W. Emil White.)
Hostess with the Mostest Jillie (Sara Grant) proudly presents Tracy Jones (Niki Fridh) with enough fresh-cut celery to feed an army of vegetarian Tracys. Don’t miss Island City’s laugh-a-minute and-more production of Stephen Kaplan’s heart-wrenchingcomedy, TRACY JONES. Playing now through June 18.
It’s now 3:15 for a party that’s been scheduled for 2 to 6 pm. And still no other Tracy Joneses (all invited guests who share the same name in the local, tri-state-area and country at large) have shown up to our heroine’s meticulously planned Tracy Jones-namesake Get Together, the first of what she hopes will become a regularly recurring event. But maybe “everyone’s fashionably late?” Only the 16-year-old, last-minute Hostess replacement realizes that 67 “interested” Facebook responses does not bode well. Still, first-day-on-the-job but meticulously trained Hostess with the Mostess Jillie (pigtailed and ebullient Sara Grant) carries bravely on. Annoyingly efficient, she insures everything is run according to the eatery’s all-encompassing handbook, whose ordinances she constantly quotes.
A cut-up raw veggie platter travels back and forth endless times between the two tables – one as a meat accompaniment; the other, at Tracy’s preferred isolated spot for vegetarians. And now Tracy is relegated to sneaking her soda pours, as the Hostess insists only her training allows for this function. Watching the stealth back-and-forth between innocently well intentioned yet highly stubborn women – one middle aged, the other in her teens – is aggravating but also a lot funnier than it sounds.
Both women recite Tracy’s order of party events like a mantra, commencing with passing out “Tracy Jones” name badges (after proper, tongue-in-cheek “What’s your name?” inquiries), to playing an “Ask Tracy a Question” Bingo game designed to get to know one another better. There’s even an upcoming PowerPoint presentation on their numbers around the world that includes the fact that 6,771 Tracy Joneses live in the US and of those 80.37% are females while 189 female Tracys live in-state.
Periodically, as Tracy turns around to loudly berate herself for expecting anything good to happen, a hesitant young man enters (Matthew Buffalo as Tracy #2), then instantly flees, frightened by her outburst. Tracy is oblivious, but we soon realize this must be a male Tracy Jones attendee. We do, finally, witness an apologetic late appearance of another female Tracy (Irene Adjan as Tracy #1), gloriously attired in a Vera Wang evening gown. But both she and our original Tracy seem to think the young man is there for a later event. Misinterpreting his shyness for not understanding English, Tracy #1’s attempts at Spanish leaves him utterly befuddled and, again, he flees.
It’s touching and painful to observe how Tracy tries to connect to her single guest but is continuously overshadowed by the young Hostess who’s impressed by her use of Middle Earth terms and relates more easily. Tracy #1 says she’d seen the invite at a library notice wall and when asked what she does for a living, presents herself as a bibliotherapist who prescribes literature to make people feel better. (Of course, works of fiction have been helping alienated readers feel less alone for centuries, but I looked this one up – it’s actually an accepted therapy modality.) For the Hostess, she recommends “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin (great book and author!). And there are plenty more sprinkled throughout the show, including Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” and “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens.
Tracy Jones works (or worked) as a bank clerk, spending her days typing names and data for people opening checking accounts. She laments that they never returned to visit or responded to her invites to see a movie – inappropriate behavior that led to her suspension. Attempting to connect with similarly boring-named Tracy Jones women like herself represents her final attempt at finding friends as she has no husband or children, and her mother, a heavy smoker, passed away from lung cancer three years ago.
This last revelation is one she’s hesitant to share with Tracy #1 who’d provided a lighter for her candle gift as the Tracy Bingo winner (in clear defiance of Jones Street Bar rules), and then proceeds to light up herself. Tracy looks at her earnestly and confides: “You care, you understand me, you see me.”
Sadly, it’s more of a wish than a fact because shortly thereafter Tracy #1 tries her best to leave (for the second time) but is once again thwarted by the unanticipated entrance of their young Hostess – the swinging door smacks her on the nose. Of course, there are specific Jones Street Bar & Grill Handbook Emergency First Aid applications for that.
But in a final act of hope and generosity, Tracy presents her reluctant friend, and even the male Tracy Jones interloper (after hearing his horribly tragic tale), with a gift box that holds the certificate to a Tracy Jones-named star. So they can always look up at the heavens and think of all the other Tracy Joneses looking up at their star and never feel alone.
It’s amazing how playwright Stephen Kaplan manages to tap into the deep loneliness, hesitant strivings, yet often missed opportunities for connection among ordinary folk who desperately wish for even one caring person in their lives. We discover that Tracy #1 is just as bereft when she reveals she’d fabricated practically all of her backstory because the truth was: “I worked at the same place 25 years and no one even noticed when I left. Eight months later, I still get a paycheck.” And though she does spend Tuesday nights at a local library volunteering for Conversational English, “Nobody wants to talk to me” … admitting to Tracy, “I feel your loneliness too.”
Kaplan could have written a modern-day Greek tragedy but instead managed to convey all this American angst, anxiety and depression through a heightened form of sitcom humor laced with nonstop one liners, ridiculously hilarious physical action, erudite literary and poetic references … even misplaced identities and surprise reveals. There’s so much going on at and behind the scenes in the backroom of Jones Street Bar & Grill. Happily, all we have to do as an audience is sit back (maybe watch out for flying wings and things if you’re in the front row), pay attention, and join the wild ride of laughter through occasional tears of this uniquely entertaining show.
Don’t miss the hilarious final stop of the Rolling World Premiere of TRACY JONES by Stephen Kaplan. Playing now through June 18 at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy, Wilton Manors 33305. Tickets at islandcitystage.org or call 954-928-9800.