The Dressmaker’s Secret takes place in the early sixties in Kolozsvár, a small, historic Romanian town, that took a beating during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The setup is superficially simple: the title character, Mária, has an eighteen-year-old son. They both live in a sub-par one-bedroom flat in which privacy is provided by screens. Here Mária (an indomitable Tracy Sallows) works and tries to take care of her disenchanted son, Robi (Bryan Burton, skillfully dancing between youth and adulthood), who works at an electrical plant and wants to go to America.
Irma, Mária’s childhood friend, a piano teacher, comes to get a fancy black dress made. Irma (Caralyn Kozlowski) is clearly better off than her friend, more chic, more sophisticated and sexier. Time has treated Irma better than Mária. As the play unfolds, this is one of many mysteries delved into with skill and care. The others include finding out who is Robi’s father—Irma’s brother Robert (Robert S. Gregory, a portrait of suppressed guilt), Mária’s W.W. II fiancé, or a Jew, Zoli, with whom Mária fell in love and whom she protected from deportation.
As the play slowly unfolds, these secrets are revealed with a directness shockingly arising from a slow-moving plot. In lightning strikes, we find out how Irma has managed her high life; who is Robi’s real dad; Robert’s role, as a high ranking officer in the Nazi-led local army; and Robi’s future.
The playwrights have a keen understanding of this place and time, helped by the simple, but telling scenery of Stephen C. Jones, who also lit the small performing space to give the illusion of multiple settings. Molly R. Seidel’s costumes also hit the nail on the head as far as period and character are concerned. The glamorous dress Mária creates for Irma is in direct contrast to her own dreary housedresses, and Robert’s fancy western style suit makes Robi even more eager to leave Romania.
All the actors are fine. Ms. Sallows, clearly a lovely woman, manages to subdue her looks and her emotions brilliantly. Ms. Kozlowski gives Irma a gay, bubbly façade, but her eyes defy the surface. Mr. Gregory’s elegant manner and diction crumble when he is backed against the wall by an insistent Mária. Young Bryan Burton makes Robi a perfectly irritating youth, callow in the extreme, but eager to learn.
Roger Hendricks Simon, the director, might have quickened the pacing, but his attention to the details of each interaction is superb. He was hindered slightly by the fact that The Dressmaker’s Secret has two endings, a penultimate celebration at a posh café, followed by a final scene that actually ties everything together. Better direction might have lessened the effect that these two scenes create.
Nevertheless, The Dressmaker’s Secret is an important play that shines a light on the Holocaust, Eastern Europe’s submission to Communist regimes, and the toll all this history has taken on a small corner of Europe.
The Dressmaker’s Secret (through March 5, 2017)
The Simon Studio in association with Amanagion LLC
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running times: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission