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World premiere of R.N. Sandberg's "Roundelay" at Passage Theatre Company

World premiere of R.N. Sandberg's "Roundelay" at Passage Theatre Company

When playwright Arthur Schnitzler put pen to paper late in the 19th century to write the sex-capade “La Ronde,” he unwittingly inspired countless artists, through generations, to spin off their own interpretations. “La Ronde’s” first staging in 1920 was received by Berlin’s cognoscenti with upturned noses. That wasn’t the case in New York some 78 years later, when British scribe David Hare unveiled his version, “The Blue Room,” famously adorned with Nicole Kidman’s derrière.

Robert Sandberg of Princeton, who goes by the gender-neutral name R.N. Sandberg in his work as a writer, was also captivated by Schnitzler’s drama. Borrowing Schnitzler’s convention of weaving character interactions into a daisy-chain of short scenes, he created “Roundelay,” a comedy that will be given its world premiere by Trenton’s Passage Theatre Company from March 21 to April 7.

Aside from echoing the title and structural conceit of Schnitzler’s lovers’ dance, “Roundelay” moves out of the realm of sex-as-equalizer among social classes and into an exploration of global relationships. Schnitzler’s encounters link “The Whore and the Soldier,” “The Soldier and the Parlor Maid,” etc. and onward for 10 scenes, ending with “The Count and the Whore.” Sandberg, instead, takes 10 young characters of different ethnicities and sexual persuasions and spills them into an amusing circle game, played out in a handful of countries. He says his journey with “Roundelay,” which began a few years ago, also allowed him to explore the impact of tech on romance and “the broader connections that exist in the world.”

“It also has to do with a society falling apart and how the role that sex plays is abused or distorted within that world,” Sandberg explains. Addressing the potency of online chat in the play, he adds, “People have to judge whether it’s a positive or negative force. I hope that it’s not particularly negative.”

Schnitzler comparisons aside, “Roundelay” director Adam Immerwahr, who is also associate producer at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, says he is getting the “tonal inspiration” for the staging from Sandberg’s words alone. “And there’s a lot in there to draw from,” he notes. “It’s an incredibly rich pool.”

Whether they live oceans apart or in the same Manhattan borough, or converse in bars, on the phone or via the internet, the characters of “Roundelay” are driven by a longing to establish meaningful partnerships. It’s “the search for ‘the one,’” as Immerwahr puts it, with laughs along the way.

“I don’t really set out to write a certain kind of play,” Sandberg explains, “although my tendency, more and more, is probably to write plays that I wouldn’t say are lighter, but plays that people can come out of feeling positively. They’re going to have an ‘up’ experience rather than a ‘down’ experience.”

Sandberg, who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, teaches drama at Princeton University, where his wife, Virginia Zakian, is a professor of molecular biology. Theater wasn’t on his radar until he saw an ad in a writer’s magazine that promised $1,000 and the chance to produce a play off-off-Broadway. He figured it was easier to write a play than continue to labor over novels.

To learn stagecraft, he auditioned for and landed the role of the father in a production of “The Bad Seed” at a small company in Seattle. (Portraying his spouse was a talented ingenue named Jean Smart, who later made a name for herself on “Designing Women.”)

Sandberg, a Princeton University undergrad, earned a master’s degree at the Yale School of Drama and eventually headed the drama department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. His plays have been produced worldwide and by such companies as The Barrow Group and La MaMa in New York, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Dallas Children’s Theater. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival presented his “A Woman of Means” — a musical romp that takes Shakespeare to the Old West — and Yale Cabaret staged “Bicycle Built for Two,” a comedic glimpse of scenes from a marriage.

As an educator and dramatist, Sandberg takes special interest in writing for young audiences and has been commissioned to adapt beloved tales: “Anne of Green Gables,” “Frankenstein,” “Sara Crewe” and “The Odyssey,” to mention a few. In a successful collaboration with New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse, he authored two plays for its educational Touring Theatre: “In Between,” concerning teens coping with peer pressure, and “IRL (in real life),” about cyberbullying.

“I try to approach writing plays for young audiences the same way I approach writing a play for any audience,” Sandberg says. “There are characters you hope your audience is going to relate to and you want to tell a good story about those characters. ... That’s really what I’m trying to do, as opposed to ‘giving a message.’

“I have to care about the characters. They have to have a journey that interests me.”

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“Roundelay” began its stage voyage at a lab for new works at Passage Theatre, culminating in a performance of excerpts from all the plays. Immerwahr, who knew Sandberg from various collaborative events in Princeton, says he was “thrilled” to be asked to render “Roundelay” for Passage’s mainstage. Sandberg also tooled with the script during a reading at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and continues to tweak it during rehearsals.

“He gets in there, laser-focused, and makes a tiny change that has a huge impact,” says Immerwahr. “That’s what the new play development process is about. ... Bob will find ways to make the play even stronger, even funnier and more powerful.”

Sandberg says he wants his play to stir feelings of hopefulness and expectancy in audiences. “And that they feel we live in a world with all kinds of people and all kinds of possibilities.”

Passage Theatre Company, founded in 1985, is a supporter of new plays celebrating the human spirit and champions area talent, such as playwright William Mastrosimone. It is located in the historic Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front St., Trenton. Tickets to “Roundelay” are $28 ($33 on Saturday nights), (609) 392-0766. For inquires, email info@passagetheatre.org.

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