By Samuel L. Leiter
Are you a sucker for sentiment? Do you really not care that much if a play you’re seeing is contrived, clichéd, and conventional, as long as you enjoy the company of its characters and the familiarity of its situations? That, at least, was my reaction to Cary Gitter’s rom-com Valentine, The Sabbath Girl, directed by Joe Brancato for Stony Point, NY’s, Penguin Rep Theatre, where it had its world premiere before coming to 59E59 Theaters.
I admit that I found it impossible not to tear up pleasurably, both while reading it and watching it. I may have had issues with the hour-and-25-minute production, but my eyes watered as I sniffed the aroma of interfaith romance bubbling from the playwright’s melting pot.
The Sabbath Girl is a throwback to Abie’s Irish Rose, Anne Nichols’s farce about the romance between a Jewish boy and an Irish-Catholic girl, who face objections to their love. While that play smashed Broadway long-run records, its best-known offspring, the TV sitcom “Bridget Loves Bernie,” stirred up so much religious protest against its Jewish-Catholic alliance that it was yanked after only one season (1972-1973), despite high ratings.
Nowadays, despite mixed marriages being so common, the issue can still roil families and religious leaders. If you know couples who’ve been in such a relationship, you’ve probably witnessed the disruptions it can cause, especially where religious ties remain strong. Such, as expected, is true of The Sabbath Girl, which makes its ecumenical points through typical ethnic humor as well as schmaltzy emotionality.
It begins, of course, with the meet-cute business. Angie (Lauren Annunziata), an attractive, Italian-American, 30-year-old, art gallery curator has just moved into an Upper West Side apartment. Who’s that knocking at her door this steamy Friday night? Why it’s her Orthodox Jewish neighbor, Seth (Jeremy Rishe), a 32-year-old knish-maker. What does he want? Someone to turn on his A/C.
You see, Friday night is the beginning of the Sabbath (Shabbos), when observant Jews aren’t permitted to turn on electrical appliances. They can, however, have a gentile (goy) do the job. Thus, the Yiddish expression, Shabbos goys, for non-Jews who do these tasks.
Things begin to heat up between Seth, a divorcé whose unhappy marriage was an arranged one, and Angie, a Roman Catholic who believes that “pretty much every guy in the city is an asshole in one way or another.” She’s putting her energy into making a success of her “edgy” art gallery, while he’s secretly translating Yiddish literature.
Both Seth and Angie have advisors, he his sister, Rachel (Lauren Singerman), his knish-making partner in their Lower East Side store. Rachel is traditional and wants to fix him up with a girl from their old shul. He refuses another arranged marriage. She’s also opposed to his marrying out of his faith.
Angie listens to the words of wisdom of her flashy grandmother, Sophia (Angelina Fiordellisi), white-haired and vivacious in a red-flowered dress and sheer scarf (despite the weather), whose appearances have a touch of magic about them. Sophia’s thoughts, unlike Rachel’s, are on the liberal romantic side.
Complicating things is the ambitious young artist, Blake (Ty Molbak), a sexy, sunglasses-wearing rebel, looking like a cross between James Dean and Elvis Presley. Angie wants to exhibit his work but Blake wants her to “woo” him first. To mix metaphors, Angie’s moth will need to be burned before she learns which side of her matzo needs to be buttered.
There are few surprises—even the big reveal about a character is more a playwriting trick than a necessity—but there’s enough sweetness and light to hide the cornier ingredients. Christopher and Justin Swader’s somewhat cramped set—making upstage exits awkward—uses nonspecific modules to represent the several locales, helped by an assortment of panels on which Yana Birÿkova’s projections provide a sense of place. Such abstraction, however, fails to satisfactorily evoke the specifics that would help bring local color to this world.
Todd O. Wren’s lighting is efficient and Gregory Gale’s costumes appropriate, except for Seth’s, which make him look more Orthodox than Gitter’s description: “He looks completely modern, except he wears a yarmulke.” The tzitzit or fringes hanging from his waist, and other choices, belie those words. Jared Kushner, famously Orthodox (although rarely seen in a yarmulke), would have been a better model.
Annunziata’s Lauren, lovely as she is, could use more Jersey color, just as Rishe’s Seth looks right but falls short on the ethnic tone. Singerman does it better. Fiordellisi captures Sophia’s animation but it’s hard to feel the Bensonhurst in her bones, while Molbak does his best to make Blake more than a good-looking shell.
I had reservations about The Sabbath Girl but I have no reservations about confessing that it made me both laugh and cry. And isn’t that mitzvah enough?
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Through March 8 Run Time: 1 hr. 20 minutes