“Mutual Philanthropy” is thought-provoking drama at its best

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"Mutual Philanthropy" with Vivia Font, Joseph Carlson, Laurel Casillo, and James Macdonald

The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch has, for the past two decades, been pioneers and champions of new plays, providing opportunities for playwrights to have their works produced. Under the leadership of the company’s executive producer, Gabor Barabas, and artistic director, SuzAnne Barabas, they have presented a long string of gripping, thought-provoking productions, cementing the reputation of NJ Rep among New Jersey’s leading theatrical organizations.

With their latest offering, Mutual Philanthropy, one is privileged to see a new play so powerful that it will be discussed for days, even weeks, after seeing it.

Playwright Karen Rizzo has crafted a spare, gripping piece exploring class divides in present-day society. We meet Lee and Esther, a struggling working class couple — he’s a sculptor, she’s a small-scale baker — as they come to dinner at the home of their wealthier friends Charles and Michelle in northeast Los Angeles. (Their children, best friends, attend the same school.) The evening starts off with pleasant small talk, but takes an unexpected turn when Charles and Michelle propose giving Lee and Esther half a million dollars as a philanthropic investment, claiming to expect nothing in return.

The evening descends into suspicions of Charles and Michelle’s motives in making such an offer, with alcohol and sexual innuendo fueling the discussion. The play rises to an abrupt, shocking climax that leaves the final results of this dinner party to the audience’s speculations.

The cast, skillfully helmed by director Evan Bergman, is outstanding. Joseph Carlson is Lee, proud of his artistic work, unwilling to take money being offered with nothing being asked in return. Vivia Font’s Esther is initially dazzled by the offer, seeing in it a way to expand her baking business, yet later voicing the strongest suspicions of her friends’ true motives. Laurel Casillo’s Michelle is a study in over-the-top behavior, at times overly emotional, at others almost blatant in her innuendos — or is it all fueled by her alcohol consumption?

Finally, James Macdonald is a study in thinly-disguised power and influence as Charles, a man used to having everyone eventually say “yes” to him. The four actors skillfully navigate the depths of this play, and director Bergman has them relating to each other through the strange events of this one evening as only friends of long standing could.

This is a powerful play that deserves to be seen, especially in a time when class divisions are a largely undiscussed and misunderstood part of the larger society. I cannot more strongly recommend going to see Mutual Philanthropy.

Mutual Philanthropy is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch through November 19th. For tickets and information, visit njrep.org.