Corey Tazmania as Billie, Phoenix Vaughn as May, Wendy Peace as Alice and Natalie Mosco as Sophie in The Housewives of Mannheim at 59E59 Theaters.
BOTTOM LINE: This new play tackles a touchy subject with a sweet touch. It's a little self-indulgent and doesn't break creative ground in its storytelling, but it's a well-produced glimpse into four complex characters' lives and it offers the right amount of intrigue to keep the audience's attention.
Finally, a show for elderly lesbians! If you were around in the 1940s or if you’re curious about the secret (homosexual) lives of housewives during that time, The Housewives of Mannheim is the show for you. That’s not to negate its universal appeal – it’s certainly an engaging play about love and friendship that reaches further than the niche I’m referring to – I’m just saying there might be a built-in audience.
Like all period pieces, Housewives is true to its era. An appropriate set evokes a sunny kitchen in a Brooklyn apartment building during World War II. With the icebox in one corner ("It's a fridge now. We should call it a fridge, so the kids won't get confused"), the radio in another, and the clothesline on the fire escape, the period is perfectly portrayed. The building's occupants include the wives of soldiers overseas; they raise their broods and bide their time until their husbands return and their lives can resume where they left off.
The kitchen in question belongs to May Black (Phoenix Vaughn), a beautiful and wholesome girl-next-door type who is at a turning point in her life. Never one to stray from normalcy, May has just discovered life outside her cozy bubble; with her husband away and her curiosity getting the better of her, she has a burning desire for knowledge. Trips to the art museum and a possible college application have swept her imagination away and she desperately wants to get out of her housewife rut and find a more exciting, intellectual life. The play is named after a painting of the same name that May discovers at the museum – its beauty captivates her.
Enter a new neighbor, Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), a recently widowed, childless Austrian, who has moved to Brooklyn from Europe (by way of Connecticut). Want to know what it's like in Nazi occupied Europe? She may or may not tell you - but it's much worse than you think. May is fascinated by Sophie and her exotically intellectual sensibility. Sophisticated and worldly, she further opens May’s eyes to the possibilities that lie ahead, if she embraces the opportunities to learn and grow.
This newfound desire to expand her horizons, coupled with the growing closeness of her best friend Billie (Corey Tazmania) have thrown May for a loop. After a drunken night at a “bohemian” party thrown by Billie’s "bohemian" friend, the two friends have a sexual encounter. The truth comes out that Billie is a lesbian (although she is married to a man) and has had a crush on May for years. May has never imagined herself sleeping with women and the thought of herself as a lesbian makes her sick to her stomach. Her inner homophobia (although give her a break, it is the 1940s) runs rampant as she tries to cope with the aftermath of the tryst.
Housewives is an interesting character study about homosexuality at a time when it was unseemly and never, ever discussed in the open (not that it's universally accepted in 2010, but we've come a long way in 70 years). The relationship between May and Billie illustrates a larger demographic, and both actors play this love affair with passion; Billie’s tenacity and May’s incertitude make for a volatile confrontation. Their heartbreak is profound and both Vaughn and Tazmania are believable in their roles.
Production-wise, Housewives doesn't attempt to do anything new, but rather to do what it does in an accessible way. The direction, by Suzanne Barabas is serviceable, but feels a little stifled in the one-room set. Where Barabas really succeeds is in the development and awkwardness of the relationship between the women (including their straight, non-accepting friend Alice, played by Wendy Peace). I found the underlying tension to be the most interesting component to the production. The script, by Alan Brody, is also pretty obvious. Life is hunkey-dorey, then a conflict arises, then tension ensues, then there's a happy resolution. It's standard and unsurprising. Brody's story is sweet and his characters make an endearing ensemble, but a literary masterpiece, Housewives is not.
It probably won't change your life, but Housewives does provide an endearing, if superficial, tale that is a vehicle for some very fine performances. See it if you are looking for a provocative play that exposes a rarely discussed taboo given its era. If you have a personal affiliation with the 1940s, there is much to appreciate from the set and script (and the throw-back design and references). Although it's not the most challenging of theatrical experiences, Housewives offers a nice time at the theatre.
(The Housewives of Mannheim plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, as part of the American's off-Broadway series, through June 6, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:15pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:15pm, Saturdays at 2:15pm and 8:15pm and Sundays at 3:15pm. Tickets are $35 and are available at ticketcentral.com or by calling 212.279.4200. For more show info visit 59E59.org.)