George Street Playhouse opened the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater, its newest stage, at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center with “Last Days of Summer,” based on the novel from Steve Kluger, which started its 2019-20 season.
Taking place in 1940, the play begins with 12-year-old Joey Margolis (Julian Emile Lerner), who is frequently bullied for being Jewish. As a solution to his problem, Joey writes to famed New York Baseball Giants star and rough-neck Charlie Banks (Bobby Conte Thornton) every single day in hopes of the star returning one of his letters so he would have proof that Banks was his friend and would protect him from any bully.
Entering the locker room of the Polo Grounds, the audience is met by Banks and his teammates, who are cheering him on after winning another fight during the team’s last game. Following the team inside, Hazel MacKay (Teal Wicks), the famed actress and fiancée of Banks, looks at him in anger for fighting once again.
Removing her engagement ring, she returns it to Banks and tells him that she cannot marry someone who continues to fight other people. Negotiating with her, Banks agrees that if he were to stop fighting for the rest of the season, MacKay would marry him.
Back with young Margolis, Joey hears the news of Banks’ and MacKay’s public engagement on the radio. He quickly devises a plan. If Banks wouldn’t get back to him, maybe Joey would be able to reach him through his new fiancée. Writing to MacKay, Joey insists that he is a young, ill child and the only thing that would help him in his time of sickness would be meeting famed Banks.
Trying to convince her otherwise, Banks claims that Joey is a lying boy who writes him every single day with a different lie on why he needs to meet him. MacKay doesn’t want to hear otherwise and basically orders Banks to go and meet the child.
Here we find Joey and his friend Craig (Parker Weathersbee) being bullied once again by Gordon Bierman (Sabatino Cruz). Banks, finally, comes to Joey’s rescue and orders the boy to never again mess with a friend of his.
Gordon runs away and Banks soon turns on Joey. Yelling at him for bothering him day after day, Banks questions him on why he has been relentless. Joey cowers and explains how he is constantly bullied, and his father walked out on him, leaving him with no male influence and no one to stand by his side when he makes his Bar Mitzvah.
Banks, not caring about Joey’s troubles, orders him to go with him to see MacKay and explain to her that he was lying. Not having any other choice, Joey goes with him.
Upon arriving, Joey continues the charade and pretends he is a sick child for MacKay’s benefit. MacKay, taking pity on him, commands Banks to continue to be influence for Joey and to look out for him.
Telling Banks to get them some drinks, she turns to Joey and makes him a deal. Seeing through his act, she tells the boy to keep Banks in line. She agrees with him that if he can keep Banks in line, Joey can continue seeing him. From there, the production continues its comedic writing, outstanding performances and brilliant acting.
Lerner, who played young Joey Margolis, brought humor, wit and adolescence to the show that I was not expecting to encounter. Seeing the world from the 12-year-old character’s mind was light and refreshing at times but daunting at others. Lerner’s performance was very enjoyable.
A beautiful voice to match her beautiful persona, Wicks’ portrayal of Hazel MacKay was just so much fun to watch. A voice that hit every single note perfectly, Wicks put on a tremendous performance as her wittingly, cunning character.
Thornton, who portrays Banks, was absolutely wonderful. His strong, commanding voice with its rhythmic tone brought applause from the audiences through every number. Recently in Broadway’s “A Bronx Tale,” Thornton’s ability to play a rough-necked New Yorker came in handy with this role, as he captured the character perfectly. Showing emotion at only the most vulnerable points of his part, Thornton made sure audiences felt for him in different ways. He was the highlight of the production.
Complete with a live orchestra, Conductor Lon Hoyt and his ensemble were absolutely magnificent. Not missing a single note to the spoken word, the timing of the orchestra was truly perfect.
George Street Playhouse’s “Last Days of Summer” will continue performances at the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through Nov. 10. For more information, visit www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.