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Sheryl Kaller leaps to Broadway with 'Next Fall'

Last year, when Valley Stream native Sheryl Kaller was directing "Next Fall," a new Off-Broadway drama with minimal budget, she had her husband haul books from their New Jersey home to the theater to help dress up the set. She brought her own chairs, too.

That was then.

Now she's sitting at the Helen Hayes Theatre, about to make her Broadway directorial debut with the same play, which opened Thursday. This time, they don't need her chairs.

"Next Fall," as plays go, is a bit like "the little engine that could." After getting rave reviews Off-Broadway - and an extended run - producers are giving it a shot on the Great White Way. They're still keeping it simple. No celebrities - not even a reality show castoff.

It's an ensemble piece about a gay couple - one of whom is a devout Christian - their family and quirky New York friends, and what happens when one of them is suddenly hit by a car. Playwright Geoffrey Nauffts (a writer for ABC's "Brothers & Sisters") ladles in equal parts humor and raw human emotion. Kaller sat down recently with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio to talk about growing up on Long Island, and dealing with life's curveballs.

Someone said you're like the show's "earth mother."

It was important to Geoffrey to have a woman - a mother - direct this play. So much of it is about parents and children, and expectations.

And religion. Are you religious?

I'm a nonpracticing Jew. I became more Jewish - culturally - after I had kids. After I lost my mother, it became very important to me that my children learn how she kept Passover and celebrated the holidays.

When did your mom die?

Five days before my 30th birthday - I sat shiva for my birthday. After that, I moved back to my childhood home in Valley Stream. I had Tobey . . . and Tess. They went to my elementary school. There were even some of the same teachers around. It was a privilege to pass down what my parents had given me. That little enclave in Valley Stream.

How'd you get into theater?

I learned how to do theater in Lawrence. My mother acted and my dad made the costumes. He was in the auto seat cover business, so he knew how to sew. My mother also took me to a Broadway matinee a month. She called it a mental health day.

For you or for her?

Both. [She laughs.] My first Broadway show was "Pippin." Bob Fosse inspired me. I directed a one-act my senior year at Valley Stream South, and that's what did it. I knew this is what I want to do. I went to Emerson] college for directing. And all my parents' theater friends would come up to Boston to see my shows. They'd rent these small buses . . . . So Bob Fosse and the Long Island crew were my strongest influences.

Seems a good time for female directors, what with Kathryn Bigelow winning an Oscar for "The Hurt Locker."

On Broadway, too. Marcia Milgrom Dodge - her "Ragtime" was beautiful. Kate Whoriskey] is directing "Miracle Worker." The field is opening up. The fact that I'm making my Broadway debut six months before I turn 50 - it's a pinch-me moment.

Are you always this . . . happy?

I am. I think when your mother's 52 and healthy one minute, then dead the next - from a stroke - I decided there was no way I was going to waste time being unhappy. My dad died four years later . . . from a red ant bite.

From a what?

A red ant bite. In Southern Florida. Dead in 13 seconds. I spoke to him the night before, and the last thing I said was "I love you." If we're not able to put our heads down on the pillow every night thinking we told our loved ones we love them, that we spoke our minds in unjust situations, or just saying thank you to the dude who serves you coffee.

'Cause you never know what's gonna happen the next day.

Right. This play is about being the best parent, the best partner, the best friend you can be. Those are the values I grew up with. I often say, "You can take the girl outta Long Island but you can't take the Long Island outta the girl." There's a bond growing up there. I still have friends from there. My brother lives in Merrick. There's a bond out there that's very family-minded, very faith-based . . . and progressive all at the same time.

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