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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Exceptional New American Play:
The Housewives of Mannheim

Also see Bob's review of Sheila's Day

The Housewives of Manheim

It is early spring, 1944, and we are in a kitchen in an apartment house on Kings Highway in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. It is in the apartment of May Black. Here she schmoozes with her two long-time friends who also live in the building. Each of these thirty-ish women is very different from the other. Billie Friedhoff is a bit hoydenish; she buys and sells on the black market and is sometimes given to vulgar, straight-forward speech. Alice Cohen is a judgmental, self-appointed, moralist busybody. It is the warm, easygoing, not given to self examination, May who is at the center of this tripartite relationship. All are married, with May and Alice's husbands in the army overseas, and Billie's dentist husband, whom she despises, at home ... As The Housewives of Mannheim begins, Sophie Birnbaum, a 60-year-old concert pianist who had escaped Europe and lived with her artist husband in Connecticut until his recent death, is in the process of moving into the building. May is on the verge of expanding her intellectual horizons, having recently taken an interest in the paintings of Vermeer. Sophie will be drawn to her in a maternal way and encourage her to further educate herself.

With Glenn Miller's recording of "It's Make Believe Ballroom Time" leading off a hit parade of World War II popular music, references to contests for recipes and advertising slogans, food ration books and the black market, and war bonds, it seems that we are in for homey, nostalgic memories of the homefront in Brooklyn during World War II. As things turn out, this could not be further from the truth.

On a mundane, prosaic level, the central subject that will emerge in The Housewives of Mannheim is the female version of what Oscar Wilde's Lord Alfred Douglas called "The love that dare not speak its name". However, on a deeper and more exalted level, author Alan Brody has delivered a powerful play which, in a fully fleshed out, unpedantic, and dramatically satisfying manner, examines such matters as unexamined lives, personal growth, loyalty, friendship, prejudice, gender discrimination, self acceptance and education. Not to say that it is small potatoes to write a play which strongly arouses the viewer's empathy for those who had (and still have) to hide their sexual identities to survive among their family and friends. Author Brody is a professor at M.I.T. where he is the Associate Provost for the Arts.

Guided by the splendid, unobtrusive direction of SuzAnne Barbaras, the four women are vividly brought to life. Natalie Mosco brings out enourmous depth and dimension in the newly arrived Sophie. The beauty, dignity and heartbreak brought Mosco brings to this role is quite rare. Corey Tazmania embraces the harsh edges and mannishness that author Brody has provided for the closeted and needy Billie, and makes us truly care for Billie's bruised soul. Pheonix Vaughn subtly conveys the turmoil which May is experiencing while maintaining, in so far as she is able, the mild, compromising persona that is being reduced to a fašade. Wendy Peace does a fine job in bringing out the reality and humanity of Alice, the most ridiculed and least dimensional of the women.

Quinn Stone's richly detailed set and Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes contribute strongly to the production's feel for time and place.

The play's title comes from a composite "fictional" 17th century attributed here to Vermeer. It actually features paintings of four Dutch women "lifted" from four separate Vermeer paintings. These women appear to be living cloistered lives which would make it impossible for them to contemplate the relatively larger scope for growth which later generations of women would have. Unlike them, May wants to be able to contemplate the increasing freedoms which would be available to generations of women yet to come.

This world premiere production of The Housewives of Mannheim clearly demonstrates the importance of the New Jersey Repertory Theatre. It is outstanding.

The Housewives of Mannheim continues performances (Evenings: Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m. / Sun. 7 PM; Matinees: Sat 3 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through May 31, 2009 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org

The Housewives of Mannheim by Alan Brody; directed by SuzAnne Barbaras

Cast:
May Black.................Pheonix Vaughn
Alice Cohen..................Wendy Peace
Billie Friedhoff...........Corey Tazmania
Sophie Birnbaum.......... Natalie Mosco


Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


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- Bob Rendell



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