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Theatre in Review: The Dressmaker's Secret (59E59)

Tracy Sallows, Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The "secret" in the title of this new play is something of a misnomer, since the characters spend most of the running time discussing it to death. The dressmaker is the fortyish Maria, who plies her trade in Kolozsvár, a Romanian city, in 1963; she lives with her 19-year-old son, Robi, an electrician, who hates his drab Communist existence and dreams of all things Western. (His proudest possession is a pair of blue jeans, which, Maria notes, cost him a week's salary.) To his frustration, Robi doesn't know anything about his father -- and for good reason: Maria isn't sure of his identity.

Well, it was wartime: During the dying days of World War II, Maria had an affair with Robert, a lieutenant in the Nazi-affiliated Hungarian Army, while also stepping out with Zoli, a young Jew. Before this remarkably awkward situation could come to a head, Zoli was deported, along with his family; Robert also disappeared when his brigade was transferred. The pregnant Maria, who was left alone to raise her son, also severed her close relationship with Irma, Robert's sister. Now Irma has returned, ostensibly to have a dress made, but really to inform Maria that Robert will soon be visiting from his home in Germany, where he has prospered as an engineer.

Even though the women have kept their distance for nearly two decades, Robi has long been friends with Irma's daughter -- the script is extremely vague on how this worked -- so Irma seems well-acquainted with Robi's dreams. She whispers in Maria's ear that Robert is in a position to help Robi. Maria, who feels abandoned by Robert and blames him for Zoli's death in Auschwitz, wants no part of him; she is also terrified at the thought of losing Robi. (She would almost certainly face government censure if Robi left the country.) Meanwhile, Robi -- who at first thinks Irma is trying to seduce him -- is horrified at the thought that he might have Jewish blood. And Irma, who wants to know why Maria cut off their friendship without explanation, is bent on intervening in Robi's life.

The dressmaker's secret? Everybody in Sarah Levine Simon and Mihai Grunfeld's drama is harboring a bombshell or two. Hardly a scene goes by without somebody saying "I have something to tell you" or "I have a confession to make." (Clearly, Irma, Maria, and Robert -- siblings, lovers, and friends -- knew little or nothing about each other.) Most of them are real doozies -- hidden political affiliations, complicated backstories, acts of espionage, betrayals, and fatal diseases -- and, hanging over everything, the nagging question of Robi's paternity. Any one of them could serve as the basis for a powerful drama, but here they come so thick and fast that the characters spend most of the play in a state of shock. "It's time to heal the past," Irma says at one point; good luck with that, Irma.

If anything, Roger Hendricks Simon's direction emphasizes the clunky, portentous nature of the script; generally, the women fare better. Tracy Sallows' Maria goes about her business, visibly struggling to keep a lid on her emotions in the face of relentless provocations. (The script never delves into her motivations for simultaneously sleeping with men from opposite ends of the political spectrum, nor is she given any convictions of her own. She is less an enigma than a blank, waiting to be filled in.) Caralyn Kozlowski's Irma affects a superficial, high-comedy attitude that is designed to distract from her darker, more authentic self, and her performance best conveys the corrosive effect of living in a police state. As written, Robi is little more than a callow, resentful youth, and that's how Bryan Burton plays him; anyone in this situation would be torn apart by the conflicting forces of guilt, fury, and expectation, but the writing never provides the proper support. As Robert, Robert S. Gregory looks to be a good twenty years older than his character, which further destabilizes any sense of reality; the play also has surprisingly little to say about his career as a Nazi collaborator.

Clearly, The Dressmaker's Secret has been put together on a tight budget, but Stephen C. Jones' simple set depicting Maria and Robi's one-room apartment adapts quickly to other locations. The walls are covered with black-and-white photos of what appears to be Romania at mid-twentieth century. Jones' lighting is fairly solid. I suspect that much of the design budget went to costumes -- Irma is something of a clotheshorse -- and Molly R. Seidel provides her and the other characters with authentic-looking period designs. There is no sound designer credited, but somebody provided the playlist of popular classical piano pieces heard between scenes.

The Dressmaker's Secret ends on a modestly touching note, but, properly handled, it could have been so much more; in any case, it is preceded by more than two hours of clanking dramatic machinery. It's a Cold War soap opera that trivializes some of the twentieth century's most traumatic events. -- David Barbour


(15 February 2017)

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