A sweet but unsophisticated and juvenile work by Cary Gitter, The Sabbath Girl really refers to a “Shabbos goy,” or a person who helps out orthodox Jews on weekends, when they’re forbidden to do anything that smacks of work, like replacing a burned-out light-bulb or even turning on the air-conditioner, both of which are referred to early in the play, set on a hot summer’s day in New York City. As we learn during the course of the play, “Shabbos goy” is Yiddish for “Sabbath gentile.”
The title character is named Angie (Lauren Annunziata), a 30-year-old Italian Catholic girl who moved from Jersey to the Upper West Side, where she currently resides. Down the hall from her lives the 32-year-old Seth (Jeremy Rishe), a Jewish man who needs Angie–the goy’s–help on weekends, which Angie willingly provides. But Angie, an art gallery dealer, soon meets Blake, described in the front-notes of the script as “a hotshot painter. Sexy, arrogant, brooding.” And as portrayed with a firm control by Ty Molbak, he is all of those things.
Another main character is Sophia (Angelina Fiordellisi), Angie’s grandmother, who, during the course of the play, encourages Angie to embrace love and life, as she herself did with Angie’s offstage grandfather. As Sophia says to Angie at the very beginning of the play, when she’s visiting her granddaughter in her new apartment, “Well, maybe it could use a little … flair,” which also becomes a theme of their relationship: the grandmother’s ongoing attempts to make Angie less staid than she acts or seems on the surface. As she says later to Angie, “You have to move. You can’t just stand there and let life pass you by.” But one wishes director Joe Brancato guided Fiordellisi to a more sophisticated performance.”
But it doesn’t take long to realize that Angie’s conflict is between choosing Seth or Blake. Nor does it take long to predict that Seth–spoiler alert–the Jewish man, will win out–even if Angie is Catholic. It’s as obvious as all of The Sabbath Girl is, really, making it an unsurprising and disappointing play.
The trite set-up makes all of the characters one-dimensional, with the Jewish Seth a “knish maker” and shop owner on “Hester Street, Angie groping to find herself–not to mention a partner–and Sophia, a loving and understanding “Nonna.” Blake, of course, is a leather-clad roué, who also wears sunglasses throughout–until he loses them. What is somewhat surprising is to learn that Seth, an orthodox Jew, was in an “arranged” marriage before, and divorced his wife two years ago. But the play suffers from an inordinate lack of surprise.
The acting honors of the production go to Lauren Singerman, who plays Rachel, Seth’s stern and strict sister, who represents the importance of Jewish tradition, even as, predictably throughout, Seth–clad in Jewish garb–gradually sidles up to Angie. Rachel has a Jewish girl in mind for Seth, but he’s reluctant to even meet her, as he becomes increasingly attracted to Angie. Singerman’s sneering at Angie, when she stops by the knish shop, is particularly effective. (The minimal sets, featuring rectangular cubes or boxes, were designed by Christopher and Justin Swader.) In one of the most effective lines, Rachel says it’s not 2019, when the play is set: “For us it’s 5779! That’s almost six thousand years of tradition, from Moses to Joe Lieberman.”
Though it may sound like constant spoiler alerts to be giving so much away, it’s all so obvious throughout the play, that it doesn’t matter. And that’s the keyword for describing The Sabbath Girl–it’s “obvious” from beginning to end, making for a less than scintillating theater-going experience.
With a heavy hand, Gitter attempts to make the play relevant by including non-stop references to sites in New York City, including “Smear” on Columbus and various places in Tribeca, Riverdale and Chelsea, where Angie works in her art gallery. In turn, Yana Birÿkova’s projection designs become equally annoying, with Blake’s blurred paintings or portraits, Seth’s knish menus, and many NYC cityscapes. The many images distract from, rather than enhance, the story as it unfolds.
One also wishes that the budget for The Sabbath Girl would have allowed for Gregory Gale’s costume designs to have given Nonna more than a single, flowery dress, since the story spans years, and she’s always in the same attire. It puts real limitations on Fiordellisi’s portrayal. Gale’s many costume changes for Angie prove more creative and effective, as does her naïve if layered performance.
The Sabbath Girl (through March 8, 2020)
Penguin Rep Theatre
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission