Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
Susan Sandler’s 1987 play Crossing Delancey is simple, gentle, funny tale of the human connections that truly make life worthwhile. And while there is a boy-girl romance involved, the core relationship in this play is between a young woman and her grandmother – a relationship built on love and respect and tradition. It is not surprising that, in the end, the young woman chooses her man based on those same principles.
This is the kind of small, intimate play the Theater Barn does very well, and under Artistic Director Michael Marotta’s direction Crossing Delancey is a thoroughly charming midsummer night’s entertainment.
Isabelle Grossman (Eleni Delopoulos) is a young single Jewish woman living alone in her native New York City and working in a small independent bookstore. Every Sunday she treks downtown to visit with her Bubbie (an affectionate Yiddish term for grandmother), Ida Kantor (Carol Charniga). While she enjoys Ida’s tales of family history, Izzy yearns to escape her Lower East Side Jewish roots and become a little more “uptown.” As part of her fantasy she pines for the attentions of Tyler Moss (Nick Ciavarella), a pompous novelist who lives near the bookstore and comes in regularly to check on the sales of his books.
Ida is anxious for Izzy to marry, and so she accepts the offer of her old friend Hannah Mandelbaum (Jean Luizzi), a marriage broker, of an introduction for Izzy to Sam Posner (Michael Frishman), a young and successful Jewish pickle merchant. Izzy is not thrilled with the idea of an arranged match with Sam the Pickle Man, and does everything she can to discourage the meeting. But the older women prevail, Sam and Izzy meet, and we spend the rest of the play getting to know them better.
A strong trio of Barn vets – Delopoulos, Charniga and Frishman – anchor this production. Charniga has never looked lovelier despite the dumpy housecoats she has to wear – her face sparkles and you completely believe that she spent her youth (and middle age!) fighting off the suitors.
Delopoulos is also a lovely woman, but she is tall and has a loopiness to her that makes her more comedienne than mannequin. Sandler has not really fully fleshed out Izzy’s character, and there is no suspense as to which man is worthy of her attentions or who she will ultimately choose, but that is not Marotta or Delopoulos’ fault. Their job is to make the character as interesting and likeable as possible in spite of the script’s shortcomings, and they succeed.
Frishman is really too young for the role of Sam, but he plays him so well that you don’t care. He seems to have grown by leaps and bounds since his last appearance at the Barn in The Graduate two years ago. Then he looked like the boy he was playing, and now he looks like the man he is playing. Sandler has written Sam to be just a little bit too good to be true, but this is romantic comedy written by a woman, about women, and surely we can be forgiven a few moments of fantasy that the perfect man really does exist?
Opposite Sam is the extremely imperfect Tyler. Izzy sees Tyler as the dashing, literate gentleman she wants him to be, but Sandler writes him as the shallow lout he is. Unfortunately Ciavarella is completely and woefully miscast and misdirected here. Physically he is too young, too hip looking, and (dare I say) too ethnic for the role. Tyler should at least present the handsome and polished façade of uptown Manhattan glamour that Izzy is seeking, and Ciavarella doesn’t.
Liuzzi makes an enjoyable Theater Barn debut in the stiflingly stereotypical role of Hannah the Shadkhen* (Matchmaker). Again, she does the best she can with the hand Sandler has dealt her, and she rummages joyfully through her enormous zebra-striped purse with the red handles, pulling out something for everyone.
In case you haven’t guessed, this is a very Jewish show about very Jewish people that was first presented by the Jewish Repertory Theatre in New York City. It celebrates traditional Jewish family values, which are honorable and universal in the sense that they have informed the ethics of the other Abrahamic faiths over the millennia.
Kate R. Mincer’s nebulous costumes caused me to constantly question what decade of the 20th century we were in. Sandler wrote the play in the mid-1980’s but Tyler’s ensemble looked more early ‘70’s than anything else and I couldn’t decide what Mincer was telling me with Izzy’s ensembles, other than that she didn’t have very many clothes. It isn’t specific, but the play spans a few weeks if not a few months and Izzy changed clothes exactly twice. Hannah had by far the best wardrobe, although I was as unclear as to why she changed clothes every scene and Izzy didn’t.
Abe Phelps excels at realistic sets, and here he has managed to fit two attractive miniatures on to the small Theater Barn stage – the sales counter at the bookstore stage left and Ida’s apartment stage right. In between sits a park bench in a sort of non man’s land that can assume many functions. It all works and Stephen Vieira has lit it nicely.
This is a small, warm play about everyday people that fits neatly into the cozy confines of the Theater Barn. A pleasant opener to what the Barn is billing as their “Summer of Love.”
Crossing Delancey runs through June 28 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
* Most people think that yenta is the Yiddish word for a professional marriage broker, but it isn’t. The proper word is Shadkhen or Shadchen. Yenta means a mean-spirited gossipy older woman. Hannah is a bit of a yenta too.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009