A New Wives’ Tale : The Housewives of Mannheim explores changing roles in 1944 Brooklyn

From left, Pheonix Vaughn as May Black, Wendy Peace as Alice Cohen, Corey Tazmania as Billie Friedhoff, and Natalie Mosco as Sophie Birnbaum). DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTOS
From left, Pheonix Vaughn as May Black, Wendy Peace as Alice Cohen, Corey Tazmania as Billie Friedhoff, and Natalie Mosco as Sophie Birnbaum).
DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTOS

WARNING: REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

The setting of Alan Brody’s play is 1944 Brooklyn, where modest apartments were small, the denizens were mostly women waiting for their men to return from the war, and America was in flux between the scrimping and saving of the wartime effort and the flowering of post-war prosperity and consumerism. As Mr. Brody shows it, some women were decorating bars of what would soon become a cage, and some were realizing that there was more out there in the wide world.

In this new play enjoying its West Coast premiere at the opening of Ensemble Theater’s 2010-11 season, we meet three housewives whose lives are all about to be upturned with the arrival of a new neighbor.

 From left, Pheonix Vaughn as May Black and Corey Tazmania as Billie Friedhof).

From left, Pheonix Vaughn as May Black and Corey Tazmania as Billie Friedhof).
The play takes place in the apartment of May Black (Pheonix Vaughn), whose kitchen is a crossroads for the other women in the building, including May’s best friend Billie (Corey Tazmania), salty of tongue and no-nonsense in attitude, and Alice (Wendy Pierce), who “talks like a Victory poster,” always fussing about, worrying about the price of meat and collecting food labels for slogan contests. This is a place where everybody knows everybody’s business.

But there are secrets. May recently splurged on a trip to the Museum of Modern Art and saw a Vermeer painting called “The Housewives of Mannheim,” which has starting a ball rolling in her head. Once defined as a wife, mother and content to live in and around the kitchen, May begins to question her station in life.

Into this comes Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), a former concert pianist who has fled the Nazis in Paris, and later the anti-Semites in Connecticut. To May, Sophie represents everything she wants to be: sophisticated, artistic, worldly. To Sophie, May and the other women may be Jewish-Americans, but they have no idea what is happening to the Jews of Europe. May is an innocent, and innocence can be dangerous.

In order to discuss “The Housewives of Mannheim” at any real critical length, one must take into account the events that happen just before the intermission, as they have all been leading up to it, just as the second half concerns the fall-out from that event.

May’s schoolgirl-like crush on Sophia and her desire to evolve into a different person spurs Billie to make a move on May when the two of them return from a party, drunk and possibly high. For some in the audience this came as a surprise, for others it has been telegraphed from the beginning.

Mr. Brody says in his notes that “the roots of our current culture, values and political landscape has its roots in this crucial period of World War II and its aftermath.” And one leaves “Housewives” mulling over a few of these issues. But Mr. Brody pushes this too hard in a second act that lets contemporary modes of discussion leak in.

May refuses to think about what happened that night. Billie feels betrayed after opening her heart to May. Soon May will betray Billie further to the entire neighborhood, raising the prejudiced ire of Alice and disappointing Sophia. Mr. Brody does allow May some very unsympathetic behavior, testing the audience’s faith in what had previously been a sunny, likable character.

Mr. Brody fills the second half with much speechifying, and here’s where “Housewives” stumbles a bit. Billie’s confession about hiding her true nature rings true; the mention of choice and nature vs. nurture sounds too much like today. (Alice’s suggestion to seek psychiatric help is more closer to the period.) Sophia reminds these Jewish women that they are talking about lesbians much like the Nazis talked about Jews. The moment is a bit too close to Godwin’s law for comfort, and the fact that it shuts Alice and May up for a second feels designed for us, not them.

The fact that May and Alice turn against their friend of 10-plus years with such vehemence makes their 180-degree softening soon afterwards harder to pull off at the end, though all the actors do a fantastic job of bringing these characters to life. Mr. Brody wants his play to be a comedy and not a tragedy after all. But the final tableau at the end is unnecessary, a further hammering home of points made much earlier.

The first in a promised trilogy from Mr. Brody, it will be interesting to see what happens when the men return from the war in the following play, and what will become of these close friends. Hopefully Ensemble will bring the next two to town.

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