Wartime ‘Housewives’ Forge New Paths


They may not all have turned into Rosie the Riveter, but women’s lives certainly changed once their men went off to battle. Alan Brody’s new play, “The Housewives of Mannheim,” focuses on four Jewish women living in the same apartment house in 1944 Flatbush who find different paths to growth and fulfillment in the absence of their husbands. When “Housewives” ran last year with the same cast at the New Jersey Rep in Long Branch, Robert L. Daniels of Variety called it a “keenly constructed and beautifully acted romantic drama.”

Directed by SuzAnne Barabas, “Housewives” revolves around a (fictitious) painting by Vermeer that shows four 17th-century Dutch women as they work together in the kitchen. May Black (Phoenix Vaughn) finds the painting at the Met and identifies with the figures who seem imprisoned in the domestic sphere.

The more conventionally minded Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace) cannot appreciate May’s dilemma, but May finds a ready listener in middle-aged Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), a former Viennese concert pianist who has fled from the Nazis. But when May’s neighbor, Billie Friedhof (Corey Tazmania), tries to start a sexual relationship with her, May questions just how liberated she wants to be.

The playwright, who is a professor of theater at MIT, grew up in Brooklyn before moving to suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s and then returning to New York to study acting at Columbia with Uta Hagen. His first novel, “Coming To,” published in the 1970s, was hailed as the first feminist novel written by a man. His later work, including many plays, has often dealt with Jewish themes.

Among these dramatic works are “Inventions for Fathers and Sons,” about four generations of Jewish men in Brooklyn, and “The Company of Angels,” about a Yiddish theater company that toured the displaced persons camps after World War II. “Housewives” is the first play in a trilogy that continues with “Victory Blues,” which shows what happens when the husbands return, and “Are You Popular?,” which follows the families as they make the move to the suburbs.

In a telephone interview, Brody told The Jewish Week that the play is about “what happens when men were away and women discovered that they didn’t need to identify themselves only through their husbands.” When May visits the museum, he said, she “discovers a whole world of history and art that she never knew existed.”

Brody based the character of Billie on the mother of his best friend from childhood. “I could never find the way to realize her; then I found it and a lot of things coalesced.”

Like the building that his characters inhabit, Brody recalled that the apartment house where he grew up was a “high-rise village” for which the word “community” had not yet been invented. “We didn’t need to use that word,” he said. “It’s only when something dissipates that you put a name to it and try to get it back.”

“The Housewives of Mannheim” runs through June 6 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday at 8:15 p.m. Saturday afternoons at 2:15 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 3:15 p.m. For tickets, $35, call TicketCentral at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.

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