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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Housewives of Mannheim

New Jersey Repertory Company's Lovely Production of Alan Brody's Housewives of Mannheim Is A Stellar addition of 59E59's Americas Off Broadway
By Elyse Sommer

Original Review by Simon Saltzaman

I don't know anything anymore. Everyone around me tells me what it's right to want and to feel. And when I think something different, it frightens me. — May
Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco
Simon Saltzman's did not go overboad in his enthusiasm for Alan Brody's The Housewives of Mannheim. Yes it's another World War II drama with music, costumes and scenic details to take us back to an era that seems to be a never ending source for dramatists and novelists. But it is indeed a standout, and New York theater goers are fortunate that they now have a chance to see the sensitively directed, beautifully detailed New Jersey premiere production with the actors who originally made each character a real, distinctive and unforgettable human beings.

Coming as it does at the end of a New York season that's been notable for being awash in gay-themed plays, both newly-conceived revivals and brand-new plays, the arrival of Brody's play in New York is especially timely. Unlike these plays, The Housewives of Mannheim tackles the much less explored subject of female sexual identity. Unlike any of these other plays bringing "the love that dare not speak its name" into the mainstream, this is not a Lesbian play — well, it is, in that it does address the women loving women issue. However, it does so as part of a much broader, more fully fleshed out story that examines matters of personal growth, friendship and prejudice. It uses the microcosm of a kitchen like millions of other kitchens to view the macrocosm of a world war which would change those on the home front and those in the forefront of the battle.

I'm not familiar with the layout of Ms. Barabas' theater where Simon saw and reviewed the play, but all those authentic details of May Black's kitchen have transferred just fine to 59E59's Theater B. — including the sheet on the clothesline so ingeniously used to project the Flemish painting from which the play takes its title and which the playwright subtly uses to remind us the centuries its taken for the daily little kitchen sink dramas of women's lives to evolve.

If I would add one quibble's to Simon's otherwise right on the mark review, it's that a sophisticated refugee like Sophie Birnbaum would be unlikely to move into a working class apartment building in Flatbush. In 1944 apartments between 90th and 110th street or further up in Washington Heights where many European refugees lived were no more expensive than apartments in Brooklyn and a more believable escape from Greenwich anti-semitism. But without Sophie's arrival to stir up the dormant emotions of the other women, we wouldn't have had as powerful a play so I guess Brody can be allowed this bit of poetic license.

As I became more and more involved with these women's lives, I found myself hoping that Mr. Brody was working on a follow-up that would extend this story to after the war so we could see what happens when the war ends and the men come back — something like Arlene Hutton's Nibroc Trilogy which followed its characters from the 1940s into the post War era, which began life a play at a time but is currently being frequently re-revived as an all-in-one event. Leafing through my press kit after the play ended I discovered that the playwright has anticipated my wish. The Housewives of Mannheim is, in fact, the first of a trilogy. The story will continue with Victory Blues about the husbands' return and "Are You Popular?" which moves them out of Brooklyn and into the suburbs. But don't wait for these still unproduced plays. This installment has enough power to stand on its own and shouldn't be missed.

Production Notes The Housewives of Mannheim By Alan Brody
Directed by SuzAnne Barabas

Cast: Natalie Mosco (Sophie Birnbaum), Wendy Peace (Alice Cohen), Corey Tazmania (Billie Friedhoff), Pheonix Vaughn (May Black)— Scenic Design & Properties: Jessica L. Parks
Lighting Design: Jill Nagle
Costume Design: Patricia E. Doherty
Sound Design: Merek Royce Press
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Stage Manager: Patrick Ellison Shea
Part of Americas Off Broadway at 59E59 212/179-4200
From 5/06/10; opening 5/14/10; closing 6/06/10
Tuesday-Wed at 7:15; Thurs-Friday at 8:15; Sat at 2:15 and 8:15; Sunday at 3:15
Tickets $35 ($24.50 for 59e59 members)
Re-reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/11/10 press preview

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Original Review By Simon Saltzman
A couple of weeks ago Dorothy and Dick had this man from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the radio and he was telling how they had just gotten this famous painting of these Dutch women by this painter, Vermeer. It's called "The Housewives of Mannheim" and Dorothy was describing how you could see the way life was back then just from this painting. And I was so impressed I went to see it. — May
Look carefully at the four women in the mock Jan Vermeer painting projected at the beginning and end of Alan Brody's "memory play" The Housewives of Mannheim and you will undoubtedly recognize at least two them: The Milk Maid and Young Woman with a Water Jug. They have been as cleverly and significantly integrated as are the women who congregate and commiserate in May Black's kitchen in 1944.

As beautifully realized in its realistic dramatic composition as it is in the inventive conceit of the painting, this play, now having its world premiere, revolves around the changing and evolving relationships of four Jewish women, all of whom live in the same working-class Brooklyn apartment building during World War II. Far be it from me to gush, but just being in the company of these four deeply affecting characters proved to be one of the more memorable evenings of the New Jersey theatre season.

Both May (Phoenix Vaughn), a wide-eyed blonde beauty, and Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace), the neighborhood busy-body, have husbands on active duty overseas . Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania) is married to a dentist who's not in the service but their marriage is an unhappy one. Billie has, out of desperation, become entrepreneurial and sells linens from her home. She keeps the gals amused with her crude language and her "bohemian" streak. Billie and May each have a son of grade-school age, although it is May's son whose memories and recollections are evidently those of Brody, the playwright. Brody's gift for making the talk among the women ring with an uncanny truthful resonance is more than commendable; it's a grand achievement.

When a new tenant, Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), an elegant-looking Vienna born widow and former concert pianist, moves into their building their shared, long-standing camaraderie is suddenly strained and put to the test. Sophie has escaped the Holocaust, and is at first reluctant to tell the women the truth of what is going on in Europe. However, her aura of sophistication and her European inclination for "ceremonies" intrigues May who feels the rumblings of something within her that makes her want to enrich herself and reach beyond her insular predictable life. It is the Vermeer painting she sees that prompts her to consider going to college and studying art.

The play, that begins with the women amusingly dealing with such every-day issues as rationing and shopping for bargains at Waldbaum's and Loehmann's, soon evolves into deeper intellectual, sexual and psychological territory that plays havoc with them as individuals and as a group. The actors, under the excellent direction of SuzAnne Barabas, have done a lovely job of recreating the attitudes, temperaments and the cultural specificity for the times. Vaughn is splendid as May, whose deep-seated yearnings ("something's happening inside me") and unresolved life result in conflicted signals to her best friend Billie.

Tazmania is heart-breaking as Billie, who is cruelly victimized when her true feelings for May are revealed. Peace is amusing as Alice, who spends as much time collecting labels off soup cans and entering contests as she does being judgmental. As the worldly Sophie, Mosco creates an indelible impression as a survivor who maintains her grace under fire, but mainly serving as a catalyst for these women, as they learn to be open and receptive to what they may not always understand.

The authenticity and meticulous detail that has gone into the scenic design by Quinn Stone deserves praise. The old stove with a pilot that is lit with matches, the vintage pots and pans, radio, tea kettle, the sink on legs, may seem almost obligatory. In this play, they contribute to a reality that reflects these meaningfully realized lives in a very real time. The costumes by Patricia E. Doherty are also period-perfect delights.

The Housewives of Mannheim (taken from an article in the New Jersey Jewish News) has been a recipient of a number of awards including the Rosenthal Award in 1989 and the 1990 Eisner Award from the Streisand Center for Jewish Culture. It was also cited as Best Play at the Harvest Festival of Plays and subsequently won the Reva Shiner Award at the Bloomington Playwrights Conference. Housewives of Mannheim is the first of a trilogy in progress (and the first to be produced).

If ever a new play deserved a long and prosperous life, this is the one. For whatever my word is worth, it would be a splendid addition to the Manhattan Theatre Club season. It deservedly won cheers from the audience at the performance I attended and its run has already been extended twice.

Editor's Note: This production was reviewed on April 25, 2009 by Simon at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, NJ, where director SuzAnne Barabas is artistic director. Except for performance times and venue the cast and creative team were the same as in the production notes at the end of the update notes for the 59e59 Company's New York premiere, with Jessica L. Parks, credited as properties designer in New Jersey, apparently adapting Quinn Stone's original scenic design to 59E59's Theater B.


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