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Theatre in Review: The Sabbath Girl (Penguin Rep Theatre/59E59)

Lauren Annunziata and Jeremy Rishe. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The Sabbath Girl is the play that asks the question: Can the nice young Orthodox knish merchant find happiness with the fetching Shabbos goy next door? To which I respond: Is cream cheese fattening? Are pickles sour? Is the Pope Catholic?

The title character of The Sabbath Girl is Angie, a winsome, heartsore Italian-American who works as a curator at a gallery in Chelsea. When she moves into a new apartment on the Upper West Side, she is a little nonplussed when Seth, her neighbor, comes calling on a Friday evening. As an observant Jew, he cannot operate appliances on the Sabbath, and he needs a non-Jew to turn on the air-conditioner. There's a catch, however: He can't ask directly. (This really is a thing: Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror features a riotous episode in which an Orthodox woman tries to get a young black kid, playing outside her house, to turn off her stereo; it takes a mighty effort to convey this wish to the understandably baffled boy.)

As romantic comedy setups go, it's not bad, as it allows for plenty of getting-to-know-you moments, some of which are quite charming. Most of the time, Cary Gitter's play noodles around, pleasantly if without any particular urgency, the issue of what used to be called "mixed marriage." At first, the chance of any union is thoroughly unlikely. Angie, who has had a rough ride with her ex-boyfriend, is focused entirely on her career. Seth, having recently emerged from a brief, disastrous marriage, isn't sure he still belongs in the insular Orthodox community where he grew up. Then again, given the kind of play this is, what possible outcome can there be?

Indeed, the humor of most romantic comedies lies in seeing how cleverly the playwright can engineer a successful, if against-the-odds, coming-together. At this, Gitter is only moderately successful. It's amusing when, in response to Seth's statement that he is from "Riverdale, the Bronx," Angie reflexively mutters, "Riverdale's not the Bronx." Seth gets a laugh when, explaining his newfound devotion to Yiddish literature, he says, "The language of my grandparents. I pretend I'm in Poland in the 1930s. It's fun!" (Yes, Poland in the Thirties, that laugh riot for Jews.) Lauren Annunziata -- smiling but brisk and businesslike -- and Jeremy Rishe -- at once eager and uncomfortable -- share a pleasant chemistry, making it easy to root for them.

Then again, The Sabbath Girl is plagued by threadbare devices designed to keep these budding lovers apart. These include Rachel, Seth's sister and business partner -- they inherited the knish store from their father and grandfather -- a meddling, sharp-tongued toting an extensive list of potential second wives for Seth. (Largely left undiscussed is the scandal that must have been caused by Seth's divorce from the daughter of family friends; he and his ex must have left Riverdale in a state of shock.) Rachel only wants the best for Seth, and a gentile like Angie most definitely doesn't make the grade. It's nothing against the capable Lauren Singerman that Rachel's scenes are so predictable.

Even worse is Angie's flirtation with Blake, a hot young painter from Chicago whom Angie is courting for her gallery. (We know he is hip because Gregory Gale has costumed him in a leather jacket and skin-tight jeans and Gitter has him wearing sunglasses -- à la Anna Wintour -- at all times of day or night.) "You're going to have to woo me," Blake, preening, tells Angie, and, instead of doing the sensible thing -- which would be to deck him -- she does just that. This cues some excruciatingly superficial dialogue of the sort that would get Angie kicked out of her freshman art-appreciation course. "What first excited me about your work was how you kind of magically combine the old and the new," she says, before adding that he is "like Rembrandt yet peers into people's souls." Meanwhile, he stands around, looking like a model waiting for his stylist to fluff him up. Angie's probing eye for talent is often mentioned, but her inability to spot the jackass in front of her rather undermines that notion. I could also have done without the frequent appearances of Angelina Fiordellisi as Angie's sassy grandma, dwelling on memories of her happy marriage and warning her granddaughter to land a good man before it is too late; the character has a secret that I'm betting you'll guess during her first scene.

In some ways The Sabbath Girl is strangely reminiscent of Crossing Delancey, Susan Sandler's 1985 comedy (made into a film with Amy Irving) in which a New York career gal is torn between the literary life and a pickle merchant from the Lower East Side; I guess every generation needs a variation on this story. Gitter, an early-career playwright, has a number of things going for him. It would be interesting to see him tackle some fresher material.

The modular set, by Christopher and Justin Swader, is dominated by a series of screens, onto which Yana Birÿkova, the projection designer, delivers various images of New York in summer, along with Blake's paintings, Goya's portrait of the Duchess of Alba, and the menus of the knish shop; the prices of Seth's offerings -- which, we are assured, are delicious -- are quite reasonable. Todd O. Wren's lighting is attractive throughout, as is Matt Otto's original music and sound design, the latter of which includes some mambo selections and a lovely version of "I Can't Get Started with You."

The worst thing you can say about The Sabbath Girl is that it is harmless; the best is that the romance at its center has some authentic feeling to it. Older audiences, looking to add a bit of schmaltz to their theatrical diet, may find it tasty enough. --David Barbour

(18 February 2020)

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