A hilarious new comedy with a serious core makes its world premiere courtesy of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It’s Welcome to Matteson! by playwright Inda Craig-Galván, a writer worth watching, and it deals with the modern problem of reverse gentrification. Welcome to Matteson! is witty and surprising, with skillful direction and sharp, turn-on-a-dime performances that will leave you breathless.
The play takes place in Matteson, a suburb of Chicago, where Black families from the notorious Cabrini-Green Housing Project are being moved en masse to suburban neighborhoods. One such couple is Regina (MaConnia Chesser) and Corey (Charlie Hudson, III), and they have been invited to a “welcome to the neighborhood” dinner given by neighborhood leader Patricia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) and her husband Gerald (De’Lon Grant), who are also Black.
Patricia is a tightly wound wreck, fretting over details large and small as she awaits her guests’ arrival. The tension between the couple is almost palpable, and nothing Gerald says calms Patricia or alleviates her mood. Meanwhile, Regina feels wildly out of place in her new home and among her neighbors, a belief bolstered by a racist flier left anonymously in all the mailboxes in the neighborhood, while Corey tries to reassure her by concentrating on the fact that they are now homeowners in a nice area. Corey and Gerald, after an awkward start, begin to bond; Patricia and Regina cannot keep from verbally sniping, showing their mutual snobbishness toward each other. Things go from bad to worse, although with brief, hilarious moments of bonding between the two women.
Director Dawn Monique Williams carefully guides her cast through the multitude of plot twists, encouraging them to build humor and pathos from a solid foundation of naturalism laid down by playwright Craig-Galván. Chesser’s Regina has misgivings about her move to Matteson, which are understandable given the “gift” she got in her mailbox, yet she judges her neighbors by her biased point of view formed over years of living in inner-city projects. McWilliams’ Patricia brings her own prejudicial point of view of those getting subsidized to move into her secure, well-off neighborhood. Both Grant and Hudson, III’s characters try to keep their wives on an even keel yet fall into a spate of mutual recrimination in the course of the play.
Once again, NJ Rep’s design team creates a unified world with a small budget on the stage of the Lumia Theatre. Jessica Parks’ sets, complimented by the lighting designs of Jill Nagle and Patricia Doherty’s costumes, always create a harmonious atmosphere that often outshines the design teams of theatres with larger budgets.
I’ve too often said that I’ve never been disappointed with productions by the New Jersey Repertory Company. Well, I’m saying it again. Welcome to Matteson! is funny and serious, bright and dark, and so worth seeing that it would be a crime to miss it before it closes. I highly recommend making the trip to Long Branch (easier than you may think) to see Welcome to Matteson!
Welcome to Matteson! is presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch through Oct. 29, 2023. For more information or to order tickets, go to njrep.org or call 732-229-3166.