It’s 1963 Romania. I know this because I’ve read the press release. Dialogue eventually reveals the country but never a date = political context. Later, historical specifics stultify making the earlier omission twice missed.
Maria (Tracy Sallows), a dressmaker, and her sullen 19 year-old son Robi (Bryan Burton), a factory electrician, live in near poverty. When she expresses delight finding chicken legs at the butcher, her son grumbles, “What happened to the rest of the chicken?” ‘Not for such as them.
Tracy Sallows and Caralyn Kozlowski
Robi is obsessed with two things, discovering the identity of his father (he’s been raised by Maria) and escaping Romania to “the West.” He paid a week’s salary for American jeans. Even if the aspiring emigrant could afford to leave, the government will not issue visas. Repetitive dialogue neither lets one get involved in any other aspect of his life, nor offers personality illumination. The most original thing about the boy is his addiction to sugar – ladled on everything from stuffed peppers to noodles.
Caralyn Kozlowski and Robert S. Gregory
Other characters on this axis of assumptions and “secrets” include Irma (Caralyn Kozlowski), Maria’s best friend during the war, now merely a client due to the latter’s unexplained enmity and Irma’s successful, West Berlin-based, engineer brother. As an officer in the Hungarian army 20 years ago, Robert (Robert S. Gregory) was engaged to Maria when he summarily disappeared.
An unexpected visit by Robert brings everything to the surface. Why has he come? (Even Irma is curiously suspicious.) What provoked him to abandon Maria without a goodbye so many years ago? He’s married with children, but does he still carry a torch? Is Robi his son or that of a Jewish man Robert jealously reported to the Nazis? Irma was seen entering and leaving the ghetto. Did she take part in the betrayal? What does Maria believe? Who was the other man?
Tracy Sallows and Bryan Burton
The program says the drama runs an hour thirty. Director Roger Hendricks Simon, who introduces the piece, is more accurate at two hours. The piece might be successful at sixty minutes. Were Sarah Levine Simon and Mihai Grunfeld’s play filled with experiential details, it would be an interesting story. It is not. Names, places, and events are too often colorless and without detail. A moment many of us felt was the fitting ending is bypassed for an unnecessary additional scene.
Tracy Sallows is the only one onstage who consistently holds our attention and elicits sympathy. Stubborn pragmatism, deep maternal love, and abiding anger read true. When she lets her hair down in anticipation of seeing Robert again despite strong ambivalence, we see a flicker of undeniable memory. It’s easy to imagine Maria’s oft-referred-to younger self. The actress has a credible accent.
Robert S. Gregory has moments but doesn’t seem to be able to project what his character feels.
Director Roger Hendricks Simon consigns his company to caucus races much of the time, circling round and round the set without reason. Despite ample available props, stage business is practically nonexistent. Irma, who’s ostensibly a flirt, touches people as if they’re objects. Robert telegraphs illness, yet still manages to be unconvincing. A waltz that might’ve conjured softer selves, goes untapped. The actors seem uncomfortable in their skins.
The Set by Stephen C. Jones is evocatively shabby. Large, torn photos of wherever we are in Romania give us semblance of place. An old sewing machine and tatty dress form work well. Piles of fabric would’ve helped.
Costume Design by Molly R. Seidel is extremely apt, but Irma’s gold evening shoes over black stockings is a a blatant mistake the lady in question would never make.
There’s no credit for Sound. Use of classical music excerpts and bridging sound of the sewing machine are excellent.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Tracy Sallows
The Dressmaker’s Secret by Sarah Levine Simon and Mihai Grunfeld
Based on the novel by Mihai Grunfeld
Directed by Roger Hendricks Simon
59E 59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Through March 5, 2017