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The play’s the thing for Broadway director Jessica Chayes

Michael Chayes PHOTO: headshot

It is a momentous season for Jess Chayes, the 30-year-old theater director. In September, she married actor Ben Beckley, and this month she opens her first Broadway show, as associate director for the play “Misery.”

“Married life is great,” said Chayes, a 2003 graduate of Scarsdale High School. “We’ve been together for seven years, so it’s nice to solidify things that have been true for a while.” They were married in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where they live, after becoming engaged in Paris last year. On their wedding website, they wrote, “For two people who have felt like family for so long, the outcome was clear.”

On Nov. 15, “Misery” will open on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre starring Bruce Willis, making his Broadway debut, and Laurie Metcalf, the veteran actress best known for playing Roseanne Barr’s sister on the sitcom “Roseanne.” For months, Chayes has been working alongside the play’s director, Will Frears, a London transplant to the United States who has directed several films, off-Broadway and regional theater productions.

Chayes knew Frears from the talent agency Creative Artists Agency where she previously worked and Frears was a client: “That connection put me in the room to be considered for this job,” said Chayes. She won the job because of her “calm demeanor and low-key personality, which is not a great match for everyone,” she said, but proved ideal for Frears. “It’s a distinguishing feature to be calm in all circumstances and relatively low maintenance in the theater, where there tend to be lots of big personalities.”

Chayes is also smart and has excellent theatrical instincts. She is the founder of an ensemble theater group named The Assembly, a collective of multidisciplinary performance artists who create original theater. The company came together in 2006, when Chayes was a student at Wesleyan University. “In high school, I really loved musical theater, but I was not a very good actor, so I tried playwriting and directing,” said Chayes, and indeed student-directed the high school’s production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and served as president of the drama club. She also started the school’s exclusive a cappella group For Good Measure, which still sings today.

At Wesleyan, she found other students eager to collaborate and create theater. “Our professors taught new perspectives and emphasized individual creativity and interdisciplinary work.” After her junior year, Chayes and fellow student Stephen Aubrey wrote “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford” about a nearly forgotten 1944 Barnum & Bailey circus fire that killed 168 circus-goers, mostly women and children. The play sought to raise questions about the loss of a city’s innocence and an obsessive search for truth, subtly offering context to the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack. “Our earliest performances were actually at the Scarsdale Library, to raise money to bring the show to the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” Chayes said. “I have very supportive parents with a wonderful group of friends, so we had great audiences.”

Chayes is the daughter of Michael and Linda Hillman Chayes.

The following year, the play premiered at Wesleyan University. Chayes graduated Wesleyan with honors and was awarded the university’s Rachel Henderson Theater Prize.

“Once everyone had graduated college, I realized that not everyone was as serious as I was about doing theater for the rest of their lives,” said Chayes. She and Aubrey were patient about forming The Assembly, and in 2008 added actor Edward Bauer and designer Nick Benacerraf as co-artistic directors, Wesleyan graduates all, and formally founded the ensemble.

The Assembly produces three shows each year, each one taking three to five years to create. The pieces try to tackle life’s great philosophical dilemmas playing off of political or historic contexts. It has written pieces about speculative capitalism, paralleling the Gold Rush to the dot-com boom (“Clementine and the Cyber Ducks”), about Charles Lindbergh’s kidnapped son, and the balance of grief and hope in a modernizing world (“What I Took in My Hand”), and the idea of life versus personal legacy through the character of Civil War photographer Matthew Brady (“Daguerreotype”).

A recent work was “That Poor Dream” adapted from Dickens’s classic novel “Great Expectations,” examining how class and race shape identity in contemporary America. The play premiered at The New Ohio Theatre in the West Village last October, and earlier this year was part of a curated emerging theater series at The Tank theater further uptown in New York’s theater district. In April, The Assembly will present “I Will Look Forward to This Later” dealing with the topic of aging and being an artist, a multigenerational family story that will feature a cast ranging in age from 30 to 91.

The show that put the Assembly on the map was its 2011 production “HOME/SICK,” a collectively written play exploring the history of the 1960s radical group the Weather Underground, which ran for three sold-out runs in New York, and was a “Critic’s Pick” in The New York Times, which described the group as “a cutting edge young theater collective.”

Said Chayes, “That show got us a lot of attention, and put us in with different people.” The Assembly recently received a large donation from its board of directors to build up its infrastructure, “so the degree to which we are able to function is changing,” she said. Chayes hopes that a wider audience will translate into a larger pool from which to fundraise. The Assembly’s board now includes Brad Burgess, the Obie Award-winning artistic director of The Living Theatre and a founding member of the Board of Independent Theater Fund.

“No one told me how hard it was going to be,” said Chayes about working in the theater industry. “In Scarsdale, we were all told to follow our dreams and it would all be OK. But it’s scary at first, wondering how to support yourself and being willing to work really hard and accept that it’s a rollercoaster.”

For the past several years, Chayes has had a “day job” running the teleprompter for “The View” on ABC: “There are three teleprompters, and the other operators were a playwright and an actor, so we all covered for each other and made it work.”

But for the first time in a while, Chayes’s day job is her chosen profession, helping to direct “Misery” and running The Assembly. “You have to use all of your energy when you’re young in order to establish yourself,” she said. “I have enough energy to work for eight hours during the day and then go to rehearsal at night. I don’t need to go home and watch TV until after midnight.”

The stage play “Misery” is written by William Goldman, who also wrote the 1990 movie screenplay based on Stephen King’s novel. The story is about a famous book author, his No. 1 fan and the horror that ensues when the fan holds the author hostage. The stage adaptation is Goldman’s first time on Broadway since 1962, in between which he has written the movies “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men” and “The Princess Bride” among other standouts.

In adapting the play, Frears and Goldman traded movie close-ups and quick cuts for carefully built psychological terror. Even the audience will be strictly prohibited from opening candy or having ice in their drinks so that the theater’s sound is controlled. “It’s a really intense environment,” said Chayes. “Even though it’s a play, it has the technical complexity of a musical, with lots of technical elements not normally found in a small, dark play. Scenes with Bruce hobbling were specifically created with particular choreography.”

As associate director, Chayes has acted as coordinator between the director and various production designers, she’s managed meetings, tracked script changes, and been an all-around sounding board for ideas. “The job changes depending on what’s needed at any time.” And she is thrilled to be working with the production’s creative team.

“It feels like it’s just beginning, that I’m still working hard to get where I want to be,” said Chayes. “It’s exciting to take things from the rehearsal room and bring it to life in the theater. I stuck with theater because I love it, and I love directing most of all.”

For more information about “Misery” visit miserybroadway.com.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


November 6, 2015