Wednesday, February 15, 2017

136. Review: THE DRESSMAKER'S SECRET (seen February 14, 2017)

"Fathers and Son"

Kolozsvár, Romania: 1963, shortly after the assassination of JFK. The communists are in power, spies are everywhere, photographing public activities is verboten, food is scarce, and the aging city is getting grayer. A 19-year-old youth named Robi (Bryan Burton, weak, with an awful hairdo), who idolizes the West and wants to escape Romania, lives in a shabby apartment with his dressmaker mother, Mária (Tracy Sallows, bland).  Mária is busy making a dress for Irma (Caralyn Kozlowski, interesting), a beautiful, flirtatious piano teacher and former friend of Mária’s who has recently reconnected with her, nearly two decades after the end of World War II.

Tracy Sallows, Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Each woman has secrets dating back to the war, when Romania became a fascist dictatorship, creating a society where friends betrayed friends, some collaborated with the Gestapo, others sought salvation through communism, and the Jews were shipped to German camps.
Tracy Sallows. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This is the dramatic foundation on which Mihai Grunfeld and Sarah Levine Simon have based their heartfelt but drearily undramatic The Dressmaker’s Secret, a world premiere adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel The Dressmaker’s Son by the Romanian-born Grunfeld, now a professor of Spanish and American literature at Vassar.
Caralyn Kozlowski, Bryan Burton. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The seething Robi, an electrician, is obsessed with learning from his mother, with whom he shares an intimate bond, who his father is, a man he long thought was killed in the war. Mária, reluctant to divulge the truth, finally reveals that his father could be one of two men with whom she was in love during the war: one is Irma’s brother, Robert (Robert S. Gregory, middling), a former officer in the Hungarian army who remained in Germany after the war, where he prospered as an engineer; the other is Zoli, a Jewish resident of the city’s ghetto, who was betrayed and shipped off to die in Auschwitz. One of the play’s threads is Robi’s attempt to come to terms with his potentially Jewish heritage, which he at first rejects.

The guilt-racked Robert, coughing into his hankie like Camille to reflect his precarious health, returns to Romania. It’s only now he, who possibly had something to do with Zoli’s arrest, discovers that he may be Robi’s father. This further opens the floodgates of responsibility, recriminations, suspicions, and secrets that ultimately lead to a tentative reconciliation. As for Robert’s cough, the smell of red herring is potent.
Robert S. Gregory, Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As dramatized, however, this promising material is presented over a way-too-long two hours and 20 minutes in 15 dawdling scenes that shift back and forth between Mária’s and Irma’s apartments, cafés, and restaurants. The play—perhaps because of its origins as a novel—is structurally flabby, spreading its multiple foci and many secrets too thin, creating only the most tenuous tension or suspense. Potentially thrilling emotional moments are buried under the expository lethargy, distancing us from the characters’ dilemmas when they should be grabbing us by the throat.
Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
More egregious, though, is the sluggish, rhythmically flat, and unimaginative direction of Roger Hendricks Simon; just as problematic is the mostly run-of-the-mill acting, more interested in momentary touches of subdued naturalism than in the needs of theatrical expression. The show’s already dull rhythm is slowed even more by the incessant shifts after each scene break. It’s completely understandable why, after the penultimate scene on the night I attended, the audience began to applaud, thinking the show was over.

Performed in 59E59’s tiny Theater C, with the audience surrounding the space, the play doesn’t benefit from Stephen C. Jones’s cheesy, cluttered setting, with the walls covered by black and white photos of Romania, intended to look as if crudely torn from their sources. Jones’s lighting, fortunately, is better and most of Molly R. Seidel’s costumes are, at least, acceptable, especially the fashionable ones worn by the shapely Irma.

Of the actors, only Kozlowski makes an impression, largely, but not entirely, because of her striking face and gracefully erotic physicality. But she should be careful of overdoing certain mannerisms, like the excessive fluttering of her fingers. And this being another play in which nonsmoking actors must feign smoking, isn’t it time someone began giving classes in how to smoke believably on stage?

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through March 5