In Alan Brody’s lovely new play, “The Housewives of Mannheim,” premiering at the New Jersey Repertory Company, four Brooklyn women on the home front during WWII create a warming bond of friendship that manages to endure through unexpected conflicts. What seemingly begins as a banal, gossipy kitchen-sink comedy turns into a keenly constructed and beautifully acted romantic drama.
May Black (Pheonix Vaughn) is the mother of a 10-year-old boy; her husband is fighting overseas. Her neighbors include enterprising merchant Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania), who markets linens from her home; gabby Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace) and worldly Holocaust survivor Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco).
Afraid of being considered a snob, May conceals her discovered passion for great paintings, her pilgrimages to the museum and her precious art books. Eventually she shares her newfound appreciation with the older, sophisticated Sophie, a Jewish widow and former concert pianist.
But when Billie makes an unexpected sexual advance, the joy and dignity of May’s comfortably structured life are suddenly threatened by shame and guilt. But resolve is revealed in an emotional finale that finds the women in common pursuit of survival during a time of worldly crisis.
The performances are keenly drawn, notably Tazmania as the aggressive Billie, Mosco’s wise Sophie and especially Vaughn, who stepped into the role of May at a week’s notice. She balances a deeply ingrained sense of decency, dangerous naivete and the concerns of a protective, caring parent.
N.J. Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas has staged the piece with great insight into the war years, skillfully harnessing the restlessness, longings and frustrations of vital women deprived of the comfort and support of their men.
Final curtain draws inspiration from “Sunday in the Park with George” as the ladies position themselves at a tenement window only to freeze and dissolve into a huge scrim recreation of Vermeer’s painting of four Dutch women gathered around a kitchen table. The flavorful sound design accompanies scene changes with recordings by artists like the Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller and Harry James, their nostalgic tunes helping to define the long-ago era.