LONG BRANCH – Many people know Dan Lauria as the father in the Emmy Award-winning television show, “The Wonder Years.” Others recognize him from TV’s “Pitch” or “Sullivan & Son,” or the more than 175 acting credits he has on both the big and small screen.
But what Lauria really wants to be known for is his support of regional theaters, and one of those is New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
He returns on April 22, 23 and 24 for three special benefit performances of A.R. Gurney’s play, “Love Letters,” along with Wendie Malick, who is best known for her starring roles on the television shows, “Dream On,” “Just Shoot Me” and “Hot in Cleveland.”
“I like NJ Rep because they only do new plays,” Lauria said. “They don’t do plays by old, dead, white guys. There are too many good, young writers out there who never get a chance.”
In the two-person show, Lauria stars as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Malick is Melissa Gardner. They are childhood friends who were born to wealth and position. Their lifelong correspondence begins with birthday party thank-you notes and summer camp postcards, and runs the course of their lives. It’s a touching yet funny theater piece that is bound to provoke more than a few tears. It has been performed across the country, each time with a different cast, most notably on Broadway with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, and later with Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow.
“It’s easy for a theater to do,” Lauria said. “They always get two celebrities, and when you see it with two different people, it automatically changes. Bring your handkerchief. By the end of the play, you’ll be crying your eyes out.”
Lauria is no stranger to the stage. In addition to appearing at NJ Rep numerous times over the past 20 years, he has performed, written or directed more than 50 professional stage productions. In 2014, “Dinner with the Boys,” which he wrote and starred in, had its world premiere at NJ Rep and later moved off-Broadway. His Broadway credits include “Lombardi,” in which he starred as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, and the Tony Award-nominated musical “A Christmas Story.”
“When my manager told me they wanted me for a Broadway musical, I laughed,” he said. “I can’t sing a note. I don’t even sound good in the shower.”
But Lauria was perfect as the show’s narrator.
“When you make a play out of a classic movie, you better make sure you top it,” he said.
Lauria and Malick have been close friends for 20 years and have performed “Love Letters” together many times, raising money for regional theaters across the country.
“Wendie is one of the few actresses who has been in three successful TV series in three different decades,” Lauria said. “But she’s as strong a dramatic actress as any. You need the stage to flex those muscles. When you do one-line jokes, you can get stale.”
Now as NJ Rep gears up for a major expansion, Lauria and Malick do what they can to help the theater continue to present new and creative pieces instead of rehashing productions that are safe, as many theaters tend to do.
“I can bring them new plays with stars,” Lauria said. “That’s how they keep making money. Every year, NJ Rep’s audience grows. They’re not spending time and effort trying to hold onto an old audience. They’re trying to build a new audience.”
The Brooklyn native, who now lives in California, said he and Malick are even paying their own airfare to New Jersey because they respect the work done at NJ Rep by executive producer Gabor Barabas and artistic director Suzanne Barabas.
“I love Gabe and Susan,” Lauria said. “They’re the best.”
Tickets for the benefit are $100 each, with a dessert and wine reception to follow. Lauria and Malick are also having dinner with the first 10 donors contributing $500 or more, which includes admission to one of the performances. All proceeds benefit New Jersey Repertory Company and are tax-deductible.
“Donald Trump has already announced cuts to the NEA,” Lauria said. “It’s important that we get out there and do fundraisers now while people can still write off their donations.”
“Love Letters” will be staged at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 22; 4 p.m. Sunday, April 23 and 7 p.m. Monday, April 24. Dinner with Dan Lauria and Wendie Malick will be 7 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit www.njrep.org.
Arts and entertainment writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at email@example.com.
This article was first published in the April 13-20, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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