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The Dressmaker's Secret

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 14, 2017

Tracy Sallows
Photo by Carol Rosegg

It is understandable that everyone in Sarah Levine Simon and Mihai Grunfeld's touching new play The Dressmaker's Secret, having its premiere production at 59E59 Theaters, would hold their cards close to their chests. Living first under the harsh regime of the Third Reich and now under Communist domination, there are very few people they feel they can trust. But no matter how guarded they are, their tangled secrets have a way of unraveling in the end.

On the surface, it would appear that the biggest secret of the title character, Maria (Tracy Sallows), is the seemingly embarrassing one of having had two lovers while living in Hungary during World War II, either of whom might be the father of her son Robi (Bryan Burton). Now, two decades later in 1963, Robi is 19. He longs to break away from the tedium of life under the bleak and controlling Communist regime in Romania, where the two of them and other Hungarians resettled as refugees after the war. Like many of his age, Robi is enamored of all things American; a pair of black market jeans and a copy of Life Magazine are his most treasured possessions, and escape to the West is his greatest ambition. Robi is also increasingly curious about the father he never knew, but Maria has nothing to say on the subject. For her, it is more important to stay focused on finding enough work as a seamstress to keep food on the table.

To that end, she has accepted a commission from her one-time close friend Irma (Caralyn Kozlowski), who has shown up ostensibly to have Maria make her a dress. Judging by appearances, Irma is a flighty and self-absorbed flibbertigibbet. She returns to Maria's flat several times to insist on alterations to the dress to make it more modern and chic. Maria grudgingly makes the changes, though she does not like Irma hanging around, and especially not around Robi, who is clearly smitten with Irma's more glamorous and worldly lifestyle.

Eventually, Irma makes it clear that the dress has been a pretext to allow her to reinsert herself into Maria's life. She has something else on her mind, particularly regarding what happened between Maria and Irma's brother Robert, who had been an army officer and Maria's fiancé during the war but who left abruptly, turning up later in West Berlin, where he has remained all these years without ever discussing his past. Is Robi her brother's son, she wants to know. Or is his father Zoli, Maria's secret lover, a Jewish man who was torn from her, sent to the ghetto, and later died at Auschwitz?

You are likely to see the connection between Zoli's arrest and Robert's disappearance long before all is explained, but through small revelations, we come to understand that the stories of Maria and Irma and Robert and Zoli are far more complex than they would seem to be at quick glance. It is only when Robert (Robert S. Gregory) shows up towards the end of the play that all of the pieces fall into place.

On the face of it, The Dressmaker's Secret sounds a bit like a soap opera, one that easily could turn into a mawkish weeper. But thanks to the solid performances and Roger Hendricks Simon's direction, the play shows surprising depths as its themes of love, loss, regret, shame, and reconciliation emerge over the course of the evening. The production is nicely abetted by Stephen C. Jones's simple set that suggests the close and restrictive quarters of life under Communist rule, and by Molly R. Seidel's costumes, where an American style denim jacket is a gift to be cherished by a young man who represents a brighter future for all of the characters.

The Dressmaker's Secret
Through March 5
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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