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October 11, 2007
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Meredith Brandt
Smokin' hot while lightin' up along Tobacco Road: Well-bred Meredith Brandt is trailin' sparks as the trailer-trash child chillin' in the overheated confines of a combustible family aflame with the fury and fire of poverty.

She accomplishes this in a new off-Broadway show that is so off the trail of her everyday life that she may need a compass more than a director to make her way out.

But this Jewish Jersey girl has both -- and is a cast standout as the rebel Rachel in this onstage underfed family, overrun in the rat race by the rats eating the garbage in their dump of a home and ravaging through their unlucky-toss-of-the-dice life.

"Scarcity" is scarcely the turf you'd think this preteen lass from Voorhees would take to so voraciously. But she has, making her off-Broadway debut so delicious that there's more bite in her bearing than anything in the beer-stained empty shelves of the fridge that stands on stage --a chilling reminder of the scant amount of glue keeping this food-stamp family from imploding because of the poverty that envelops them.

The Atlantic Theater Company's production is hardly a pacific overture of haimisch life among the hillbillies. Indeed, these hills have oys -- an unemployed unengaged lech of a dad who works harder at draining a bottle of beer than bearing up to reality, a blowsy blowhard of a mother whose maternal instinct is stuck in the mud of the Western Massachusetts mounds of despair, and card-playing neighbors and relatives equally suited to dreams of mine-stripping as strip poker as momentary release from their humless humdrum lives.

But then there's the hills' Billy, Rachel's wunderkind wonk of a brother, the scholar on the ship that is this Titanic of the tired and the poor, and whose brilliance buoys her own thoughts of boarding a life raft to freedom, a reverie of making waves in a family flooded by financial ruin.

And, somehow, with all the cussing, fussing and lusting, this family of misfits dreams on -- albeit not in technicolor, but in the sad sepia tones of temerity that beset their bastardized bum deal of a life's bargain.

This is not your grandfather's old mobile-home family. Oh, no, says the 11-year-old Meredith, merrily rolling along with the acclaim and accolades she's gathered for her girl-gone-wile portrayal.

At Home on Stage
She's at home on stage: The trip from her doorstep on Downing Lane to Tobacco Road has met nicely at the nexus of New York's 20th Street, where the production of Lucy Thurber's "Scarcity" has been extended to Oct. 21 at the Linda Gross Theater.

Or maybe it should be more aptly titled "Scar City" for this scabrous family burying their hurts of wounded needs? Scar city? Not for Meredith, who's found her own space between the two words and worlds to be enthralling. After all, she's closer to Cherry Hill than the hillbilly country of "Scarcity."

"It's cool," she says of finding middle ground of being a sixth-grader at Voorhees Middle School, and starring opposite such stellar talents as Kristen Johnston, Michael T. Weiss, Jesse Eisenberg and Miriam Shor some 60 miles from the shoreline up the Jersey Turnpike.

What a turn of events for a youngster whose most eventful role to date had been playing Brigitta in the Haddonfield Plays & Players production of "The Sound of Music"?

The next sound you hear is of Meredith counting her blessings. And they just might be in Hebrew.

After all, she recounts, it was at the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill that she first found the magic and mitzvah of theater, "where I was taught in a program and appeared in shows, like 'Once Upon a Time.' "

Once wasn't enough, however, as she then decamped in "shows at the JCC camp in Medford."

But the most important stage of her young life may have been the one she found in Center City, learning from her friends about the Actors Center, where she signed up and where the Hollywood signs started pointing her way.

Under the guidance of Rodney Robb, the teaching center's founder/director, she was sent out on commercials, and then signed on with talent manager Edie Robb of New York and Philadelphia -- Rodney's wife -- whose many nationally prominent clients have Hollywood, Broadway and, as Meredith has found out firsthand, off-Broadway credentials.

That's some huge game of hopscotch!

"It's a big jump," concedes Meredith of going on her first "Scarcity" audition scarcely three months ago, and now being off and running in the hit off-Broadway.

Her reaction on getting word that she got the part? "I screamed!"

On key, of course, says the actress, who's also adept at singing and tap dancing. Key to making an impression is mixing well with her more experienced onstage colleagues -- not that she knew much about them. "My Dad rented the movie," she says of "The Squid and the Whale," the 2005 flick in which co-star Eisenberg starred.

Did she like it? Parental guidance precluded that.

"I couldn't watch it," she says of the R-rated movie.

But watch your mouth, Rachel! There's no scarcity of four-letter words that escape the character; in the cesspool of life, she's deep-end all the way. Indeed, playing rural rube Rachel required some language lessons for the more mild-mannered Meredith.

"I had to say ... ," and she won't say the word now, albeit onstage it's a source for some out-there outhouse humor.

"It was in the script, and I had to say it for the callback. I practiced in the car, and I just could not say it. I don't curse."

Blessed by caring parents who explained it's not her doing the cursing but the character, she was able to dam the torpedoes and go full-steam ahead.

"I'm a kid," she says simply, "and if I were an adult, saying those words wouldn't have bothered me as much."

Playing opposite Eisenberg, one of Hollywood's hottest new stars, didn't bother or unnerve her, either. "What was really cool is Jesse, and [we] became like brother and sister," says Meredith.

It's all relative: "I have two younger brothers at home -- Jordan, 9, and Geoffrey, 6 -- and here I have an older brother on stage."

And, at the theater, she serves her onstage father beer amid the leers and outwits her out-there mother, whose unbuttoned blouse plays peek-a-boob with the neighbors. And at home ...

"Very different," she says, laughing, of her prominent parents, Amy and Scott, both attorneys.

And both are as giving as those onstage are grifting.

"I'm so glad they're supportive," she says. "Some parents either say, 'No, you're not able to do this' or they push too hard."

The Brandts? "They're perfect."

But then, who can be grander than her grandparents -- Nina and Neil Krouk, and Ruth and Phil Brandt, branded as designated kvellers -- not to mention designated drivers for the always-on-the-go off-Broadway star?

And before they announce pre-curtain "Places!" on stage for the primed actress, her mother reminds that, above everything else, Meredith has her own special place at home.

The play's the thing? Playtime is! "I want her to have these experiences, but it's important she stay a kid at the same time."

There may be little American idle time on Meredith's schedule -- "I wake up at 7, go to school, do homework in the car, do the show, come home" -- but, maybe, somewhere, there's room for a boyfriend?

Not part of her social studies: "A boyfriend? No!" she lets it be known firmly.

Hey, she says pointedly, sure, all the world's a stage, but there's still recess to attend to: "Again," she reminds with an uproarious upbraid that kids will be kids, "I'm 11!"

 

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