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TWO RIVER TIMES: Playwright Joe Iconis Returns to Two River Theater With Rock Romance

by Gretchen Van Benthuysen

If it weren’t for the Two River Theater Company co-founder Robert Rechnitz, said Tony Award nominee Joe Iconis, his career might still be a New York City secret.

“That man truly is the reason I am where I am in my career today,” said Iconis in a telephone interview a few days before his new musical, “Love In Hate Nation,” began previews at the Red Bank theater. “He loved the theater so much.”

Rechnitz, 89, a prominent benefactor, civic leader and former literature professor at Monmouth University, died last month.

“He saw the worth of the artist and the word,” Iconis said. “In the entertainment business, you can sometimes feel you’re being treated like a commodity.”

Not so with Rechnitz, who paid for the session that produced a cast recording of the world premiere “Be More Chill” after the show closed at the 350-seat nonprofit regional theater in 2015.

It inexplicably touched a nerve with teens and went viral, being streamed more than 200 million times on Spotify. Only “Hamilton” did better.

An off-Broadway production with the original cast was mounted in 2018 and sold out. A 2019 transfer to the 950-seat Lyceum Theatre on Broadway played 30 previews, 177 regular performances, and was trounced by the critics.

Nevertheless, the musical is scheduled to begin performances in London Feb. 12 and run through May 3. Iconis said that production will be less high-tech – “simple, more homespun” – and he is writing new orchestrations, but not new songs.

“The fact is, without Bob, there would not be a ‘Be More Chill,’ ” Iconis said. “There was no outside interest. Never in a million years did we expect it would do so well worldwide.”

It earned Iconis the show’s only Tony Award nomination for best score.

Based on Ned Vizzini’s young adult novel with the same title, it’s about an unpopular, anxious high school student who takes a pill and turns into the super cool kid.

His new show, opening Friday at Two River Theater, also deals with adolescents, but this time the story is original and he wrote the book, music and lyrics.

“It’s inspired by the ‘bad-girl’ movie genre and set in the 1960s in a juvenile reformatory for girls,” he said. “Those movies were more issue-oriented and politically forward. There was more on the surface.”

His score is inspired by the girl-group music of the time, such as The Crystals, the Shangri-Las, The Marvelettes, with a little bit of Sleater-Kinney thrown in.

“This show is as ambitious as ‘Be More Chill,’ but in a different way,” he explained. “The subject matter is bigger. There are a lot more scenes. The fast sequences give it a cinematic feel.

“The issues are huge: misogyny, racism, sexism,” he said. “It’s a simple story with big themes.”

It has a cast of nine with seven musicians.

The show is directed by John Simpkins, whom Iconis met in graduate school at New York University in Manhattan while working on “Godspell.” His favorite director, Simpkins focuses on developing new musicals at Pennsylvania State University, where he is the head of the musical theater department and where “Love In Hate Nation” first was developed.

It was a collaborative effort of everyone involved, Iconis said, which is his favorite way of working. In this case with a 1960s rock ’n’ roll romance between two female inmates, he said he had little choice.

“The leading lady is a woman of color, which I am not, and another is transgender, which I am not,” he explained. “So many people in the room really shaped the show.”

One was actress Lauren Marcus, who plays the warden. She made her Broadway debut in “Be More Chill” as teenager Brooke Lohst.

“I’d be shocked if audiences weren’t moved in some way,” she said. “We can’t get through a rehearsal without crying.

“The show wears its heart on its sleeve,” she said. “It’s a smart and unflinchingly honest story about two girls falling in love and how society treats women.”

So will this be Two River Theater’s second shot for a Broadway transfer?

“I hope it goes to other theaters,” Iconis said. “I’d like it to go to New York, but it’s not up to me.

“The theater gods are the kings of this industry,” he added.

“Love In Hate Nation” opens Nov. 15 and continues through, Dec. 1 at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank, NJ. Tickets $30-$70. Call 732-345-1400 or visit for more information.