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Jay (Emily Sasfai) interviews Jackie (Izzy Szyfer) for an episode of “AV Gravy.” RAYMOND HAGANS/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

The Sundogs
Written and directed by Robert Gelberg
Presented by Mirrormaker Productions and Montclair Kimberley Academy

Planet Connections Festivity
Wednesday, July 11, 6 p.m.; Saturday, July 14, 3:30 p.m.; Monday, July 16, 8 p.m.; Saturday, July 21, 3:15 p.m.; Friday, July 27, 8:15 p.m.

With Emily Sasfai, Ellie Kallay, Jonah Barbin, Izzy Szyfer, cast, and Elias Lepore, tech

Teatro LATEA; 107 Suffolk St., New York, planetconnections.org

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

On its face, it’s preposterous: savvy teens believe an outcast who claims to be an alien, to the point where they’re afraid of her. The “alien” teen has a huge chip on her shoulder, was bullied as a child, and has every reason to mess with their heads. Why would anyone take her seriously?

As rising sophomore Jonah Barbin pointed out, after a dress rehearsal at Montclair Kimberley Academy last week, in this post-Parkland shooting landscape it’s less a fear that she’s telling the truth and more a fear of what someone so out there could do. Barbin plays PJ, a photographer for the yearbook. PJ shares space in the Publications Room with Jay, who runs a podcast that brings the “alien” student into the room to be interviewed.

“The Sundogs,” a new play by Robert Gelberg, will appear in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity  in July. Gelberg, a graduate of Montclair Kimberley Academy, teaches playwriting there. Three members of the cast and student technician attend the school now; one just graduated. It’s the second summer that Gelberg has brought a play to the Festivity.

Last summer’s production, “They Say We’ll Have Some Fun,” was set at a summer camp. It was a nominee for Outstanding Overall Production of a New Play.

READ: SHINING A LIGHT ON NEW PLAYS; MONTCLAIR KIMBERLEY ACADEMY

READ: DRAWING THE PAST IN MUSICAL MEMOIR ‘FUN HOME’

This year’s production takes place in the Publications Room of the fictional West Summit High School, where Jay, played by rising junior Emily Sasfai, runs the podcast “AV Gravy.” When Jackie, played by rising sophomore Izzy Szyfer, comes in, wearing moon boots and a plastic poncho, she claims to be an alien who will soon be rescued by her real family. And then?

Then, look out. At least, that’s what she says.

At one point Jackie threatens to eat PJ.

Jackie (Izzy Szyfer) intimidates PJ (Jonah Barbin), while Sam (Ellie Kallay) looks on. RAYMOND HAGANS/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

A subplot involves an interview with Sam, played by Ellie Kallay, a popular athlete, who is planning the senior prank. Gelberg is in the second year of a residency that includes writing plays for high school students. “Most of my time in high school was spent in the Publications Office,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know how the alien thing came into it.”

MKA has no Publication Room these days, but, said Kallay, “We all do hang out in the theater teacher’s office constantly. I live there. It’s kind of a safe haven. I kind of get that feeling where everyone in high school has a place to call home.” Kallay, 18, will attend Syracuse University in the fall, and intends to study musical theater.

Sasfai agreed with Kallay that home spaces matter in school. “There’s one line in there where Jackie says, ‘Friends are the people you sit with.’” In the show, Emily doesn’t consider PJ a friend — but, she said, “in some capacity they are, because they’re around each other so much, and they have no one else to talk to.”

But what about the alien plot? The cast laughed and said they don’t relate to that part of it as much — except for Szyfer, who plays the angry maybe-extraterrestrial. “Freshman year is soooo hard,” she said, using an exaggerated “Jackie” voice, then said seriously, “adjusting to high school, meeting everyone, it was fun, but it’s not always going to go as well as you think it is. There were definitely some less-than-fun things that happened.

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ROBERT GELBERG

Gelberg said he drew on his experiences as a freshman in another high school and then as a sophomore transfer to MKA. Looking at where people sat in the cafeteria, he did have a realization that “friends are the people that you sit with.”

With the character of Jackie, it’s true that other kids have known her since grade school — as the weird girl, the dare-to-be-different girl. “They don’t know her as the person who’s really into music, as the person who plays guitar,” he said. “They are only concerned with their preconceived notions of her.”

Szyfer agreed. “Jackie is a very performative character,” she said, “Literally everything she does is calculated beforehand. She’s putting on a complete facade for everyone here.”

And similarly, Gelberg said, people will form opinions about Sam, who seems a typical Queen Bee. After they leave the play, they may think, “Wait, maybe I don’t know Sam at all. Who is she?”

And that illusion of personality is one of the play’s core motifs. “PJ is concerned about what other people think of him,” said Barbin, “whereas Jackie is someone you can tell right from the beginning does not care what anybody thinks of her. “I think to me that is the core message of this. Everybody else can stare at you. They can look at you, they can think whatever you want, but at the end of the day whatever you think, that’s what it is.”

And Sasfai said that Jay realizes, thanks to Jackie, that she doesn’t really listen to other people, despite having a talk podcast. “That’s just such an important thing. Even today, sometimes in my life, I think you talk to people with the intention of getting something out of it, instead of having a real conversation and listening and absorbing it.”

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PJ (Jonah Barbin) tries to make a point. RAYMOND HAGANS/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

When PJ begins to believe that Jackie is an alien and nobody believes him, he added, “he sees how Jackie must feel.” “Really, nobody’s listening. The world could come to an end if Jackie’s really an alien.” And his character understands that even if Jackie isn’t an alien, she’s a threat. “He’s realizing, ‘Jackie and I have been together in school since Kindergarten. Nobody knows her. We don’t communicate.’ And that in the past years of school, people have not been communicating.” And even if he’s not truly afraid Jackie will eat him, he’s upset by the statement.

“There are so many school shootings,” Kallay said. “It has just been one after another. If anybody is threatening violence on school and on a community, that alone is terrifying. You don’t know what they’re going to do.”

EXCERPT

from “The Sundogs”

JAY: Two more. Fourth question: What’s the one question you hope I don’t ask you today.
JACKIE: “What the Hell is wrong with you?”
JAY: And finally, blessedly, last question: what’s the one thing West Summit should know about Jackie Randle?
JACKIE: I’m an alien, Jay.
(JAY has had enough. Now she’s going to play along.)
JAY: You know, that’s the second time you’ve mentioned that today.
JACKIE: Yes.
JAY: Care to elaborate?
JACKIE: On what?
JAY: You’re…
JACKIE: An alien. I’m not from Earth. Or as it is known on my planet, Gor-Fl’ubtek.
JAY: Jackie, we’ve known you since we were six-years-old.
JACKIE: When I moved to New Jersey.
JAY: Yeah, you told us you moved here from Orlando.
JACKIE: And you believed me? A stranger?
JAY: Is this a theatre thing or something?
JACKIE: What?
JAY: I know you do theatre stuff. Is this a theatre thing? Is this like a student project or something?

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