When a play has so moving and complete an effect on audiences as Alan Brody’s Housewives of Mannheim, now at the 59E59 Theaters, news spreads fast. Many people have already seen this charming play when it was staged last year by the New Jersey Rep Company at Long Branch. Housewives, which is the first part of a trilogy, arrives in New York with its original cast.
Set in a Brooklyn apartment in 1944, the story centers on three Jewish housewives sharing coffee, caring for their children, gossiping and simply waiting for the war to end. The drama interweaves war, hero-worship, force of character, love and art. There is an old-fashioned feel to
this play, but one can sense that the world is a-changin’ here, and that these women are very much a part of that change. The sensitive and beautiful May (Phoenix Vaughn) is yearning to go to Brooklyn College, wisecracking Billie (Corey Tazmania) is coming out as a lesbian and prissy Alice (Wendy Peace) stops her moralizing long enough to realize that the world stretches beyond shopping at Loehman’s.
To be sure, it is the worldly and sophisticated Sophie (Natalie Mosco) who is the real catalyst of the action. Having fled the Holocaust, she arrives as a new tenant at the Flatbush apartment building and slowly raises the feminine consciousness of the other women. Although the three housewives are at first reluctant to let go of their conventional thinking, Sophie encourages them to forge paths to self-knowledge and fulfillment. Sophie also points out to them that being a mere appendage to a husband’s career and life is dehumanizing and a certain dead-end.
The play is studded with goings-on that would hardly earn a Good Housekeeping Seal. Billie’s fabric business is a tad cloudy in its moral standings. And May betrays her long-time friend Billie after a Bohemian party in Manhattan. But gray, in Brody’s hands, becomes silver, and this drama shimmers as a non-antiseptic portrait of women in 1944. Beneath its Brooklyn vernacular, the work has a pungent lyricism and a poetry of human concern. The author never ladles out things too heavily, and completely skims off the mawkish sentimentality.
Happily, the acting of the cast is uniformly strong. True, the actors have profited from their first run in New Jersey and have had plenty of time to hone their craft. But each has managed to keep her role fresh and spontaneous. Helmed by Suzanne Barabas, this production has no dull spots. If there is a flaw in the evening, it is that one can’t watch the other sequels to this trilogy yet.
Art is one of the themes woven through Brody’s script. The play’s title, in fact, refers to a fictive Vermeer painting called “The Housewives of Mannheim,” which shows four 17th-century Dutch women working in the kitchen. May, who boldly visits the Met one afternoon to view this painting, begins to identify with the circumscribed world of these modest women.
In the final scene of the play, there is a moment when the four women are gathered in May’s kitchen, carefully inspecting the stitching of Billie’s Percale sheets. What first looks ordinary suddenly transforms into a kind of living tableau. The four women are frozen in the light, caught in the exact positions of “The Housewives of Mannheim.” With a large copy of the painting on a scrim next to them, it is a magical moment of theater and a stunning example of life imitating art.
Through June 6, 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com; $35.