Sometimes the only hope alive during crises or the trauma of war are romantic dreams which disappear in the light of day. Young love, illusion, rueful regret and irony thread two lines of action, one .in the past in Chartres, France, 1944, the other in an opaque and timeless present. The threads are like parallel tracks that coexist simultaneously without touching until the conclusion of This Beautiful Future where they do briefly coalesce. The production directed by Jack Serio and written by Rita Kalnejais is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre until October 30th.
The playing space downstage front represents an abandoned house once occupied by Jews, rousted out by the Nazis. The setting is Chartres France, 1944 at the end of WWII. Upstage, behind a plastic window partition in the present are observers of the action, two wise, world-savvy seniors (Angelina Fiordellisi) and (Austin Pendleton), playing themselves. These venerables serenade us with ironic songs that provide an exclamation point to the the troubling conversations, cognitive dissonance and contradictions that abide between love-mates, a canny French teenager Elodie (Francesca Carpanini) and Otto (Uly Schlesinger). Otto is a Nazi youth, old enough to shoot Frenchmen for his idol Hitler, but too naive and ignorant to understand the heinousness of his actions.
Though the conflict is understated, Elodie has fallen in love with Otto despite his mission to kill, and he is entranced with her, possibly using her to ignore the rude reality that the war is over and he is on the wrong side and facing certain death as American forces are a day, then minutes away.
The play combines monologue and interactive dialogue. The time is non linear and moves into flashbacks which alternate from Elodie’s and Otto’s magical and sweet interludes in the bedroom of the abandoned house their last evening together, to the following day when in monologue they unremorsefully describe the consequences of their love’s fool-heartiness. Another flashback skips to the time when they first discovered their interest in each other at the lake. Then the next scene jumps to Otto’s monologue describing his last moments on earth and Elodie’s monologue describing her public shaming and harassment for making love to a Nazi.
Elodie’s and Otto’s separate monologues delivered to the audience are reveries without emotion. As they discuss the consequence of their brief love relationship the following day after their night together in the house, we are surprised by the contrast with the previous scenes when their interactions are joyous, magical, uplifting. During their pillow fight, their throwing water and teasing each other, we forget that this is wartime. As they are compelled to escape to each other, we are relieved to focus on the silliness of their youthful innocence. Yes, even a killer Nazi has elements in his spirit that are silly and sensitive. Importantly, Kalnejais never steps too far away from Otto’s humanity to make him a stereotype.
In the final section the morning before they both leave the house, an egg which Elodie has stolen from a nearby chicken coop hatches and the loud chick proclaims it is alive. Of course the irony is that as the two of them leave, the chick will have to fend for itself and most probably die. This irony is heaped on another irony, because in the first scene they discuss their future after the war; they will raise this chick and have more chickens. This is the “beautiful future” of Otto and Elodie, wayward dreamers who at this point in their lives do not regret what they have experienced together. Theirs is a respite in the horrors of death and chaos. Of course they must dream of the beautiful future because it will never come to pass.
Interestingly, toward the end of the play after the wise observers of these events sing songs whose lyrics are loaded with irony, Angelina and Austin come down from their perch “on high” and hug and comfort Otto and Elodie because of what they are going through. One wonders; if the observers could intervene would they encourage Otto to leave Elodie before morning so he doesn’t fall into the hands of the Americans and die? And if Angelina could counsel Elodie, might she have left Otto and the house before her countrywomen catch her and deem her a traitor? Elodie is punished for sleeping with a Nazi, she shares in a monologue. They publicly shame, harass her and shave her head.
Most probably even if Angelina and Austin attempted to stop Elodie and Otto, they would have rebuked their interference so they could continue to believe in their dreams and “beautiful future.” They prefer being swept up by the annihilation of romantic love’s curse. Evidence of this abides throughout.
Otto is like the QAnon MAGAS in our nation who revel in the fantasies of their own making. Like them he is convinced of his rightness in bringing about Hitler’s “perfect” Master Race and the ideas of the Third Reich. Staunchly oblivious, he refers to news reports of Germany’s loss that Elodie shares with him from the BBC as banned propaganda. He even suggests he could arrest her for listening to enemy radio. Otto cannot be dissuaded from his beliefs that his troop is going to invade England the next day. Most probably his commanders have told them these lies to bolster their flagging moral. It is a wartime trick. One is reminded of Putin’s commanders lying to the Russian youth to get them to fight his losing war against Ukraine.
From war to war throughout the ages up until today, no sane individual wants to kill other human beings. They have to be brainwashed with lies, scapegoating “the enemy other” to do so. Of course, the final lie is that the war is being waged to bring about “the beautiful future.” Things will be better once “the other” is wiped out, cleansed from the face of existence. That Elodie “loves” someone who believes this is an interesting phenomenon. Thus, the songs that Angelina and Austin sing are supremely ironic as they heighten the obliviousness of Elodie and Otto, who we somehow find ourselves engaged with, precisely because they are youthful and off-the-charts irresponsible and blind.
Elodie is like the MAGA wife who supports her husband going to radical, conservative, right-wing Donald Trump rallies, though it is counter to their lives to give money to a grifter, defrauder and proven liar. Elodie ignores the truth that Otto is a killer, a brainwashed Nazi who has most probably killed her brother’s friend and others in her acquaintance. Indeed, the Nazis have killed friends, neighbors and family. Yet, she is able to live with the cognitive dissonance and “love” him.
For his part Otto puffs himself up riding on Hitler’s coattails. He imagines Hitler’s greatness when he started out from nothing to become the near ruler of all of Europe. Otto is tremendously enamored of the adventures he’s had fighting for Hitler and the respect he garners because he wears a uniform. During Elodie’s and Otto’s monologues and interactions, the songs which Angelina and Austin sing are laughably sardonic. That they sing with sweetness punctuates the dark irony all the more.
This Beautiful Future is not for everyone. From the rosy, pink set appointments evoking the concept of seeing life through “rose colored glasses” (Frank J. Oliva-scenic design), to the contrast of action and singing in a divided stage (Lacey Ebb-production design), by undefined observers, one may be confounded with a cursory viewing. The play necessitates one goes deeper for it is thought provoking and extremely current. It is well acted and finely directed. The scenes between Carpanini’s Elodie and Uly’s Otto have striking moments of whimsy, beauty and poignancy. However, playwright Rita Kalnejais always makes sure that the romantic fantasy is momentary and that leering reality lurks around the corner ready to pop up and set Elodie’s and Otto’s tranquility spinning into fear.
This Beautiful Future runs 80 minutes with no intermission at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and times go to their website: https://thisbeautifulfuture.com/
What happens when Jewish orthodoxy and strict mores find intermarriage with someone of another faith verboten? Depending upon the orthodoxy of the Jewish community, this may be a serious issue. Cleverly, Cary Gitter, under the superb direction of Joe Brancato, keeps the difficult elements of love between a single Catholic woman and divorced, Orthodox Jewish man at bay in the lively, well-paced, delightful The Sabbath Girl currently at 59E59 Theaters. The production presented in its New York City premiere by Penguin Rep Theatre runs a slim 85 minutes with no intermission.
The romantic comedy’s tone and tenor skirts the dramatic in the opening scene when Nonna (portrayed exquisitely by Angelina Fiordellisi) visits with her beloved granddaughter Angie (the adorable Lauren Annunziata). Nonna checks on Angie to see how she is adjusting to her new apartment. In the process as is her custom, she chides Angie about not being in a love relationship. Angie assures Nonna she is a “modern woman,” perhaps a bit of a feminist. And she insists she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. She has her budding career, which encompasses her waking moments and keeps her busy. We note that Angie is ambitious, industrious and smart, especially since she intends to translate her success into even greater achievements.
Thus begins the theme of traditionalism vs. modernism framed by familial relationships. Gitter expands the themes around this conflict during the course of the play. With humor and irony, she drives the arc of the plot neatly and swiftly to a satisfying resolution.
An additional conflict in Angie’s life centers around the men she encounters as potential love interests. Throughout the play, when her Nonna visits to examine how her “love life” is going, Angie sweetly dismisses Nonna’s “traditionalist” suggestions about falling in love with the “right person” and hearing the “music of love” in her soul. Angie’s feminist bent is to negotiate and affirm her own definitions of what affection, love and marriage might be for her life. Gitter’s characterization of Angie also includes that she is rebounding from a failed relationship where her former boyfriend lied and cheated on her. In other words if she will become involved with someone, he will have to convince her he is unlike the cad she was with.
The first man she encounters is Seth (Jeremy Rishe) an Orthodox Jewish gentleman who discovers his former Shabbos goy has moved and Angie is now his neighbor. A Shabbos goy is a Yiddish term for a non Jew who is asked by Jews to perform actions that are forbidden to them on Saturday, the Sabbath, i.e. turning on lights, electrical devices, etc.. Seth explains to Angie that his other neighbor was his regular Shabbos goy. Since Angie is his new neighbor, he asks her to turn on his air conditioning. They share a few insights and he leaves. However, Seth, who, too, is recovering from a bad relationship can’t get Angie out of his mind.
For her part Angie is uninterested in Seth because there is someone else on her horizon with whom she has art in common. This man is the awesome and cool Blake (Ty Molbak) an artist that Angie wishes to exhibit in her gallery, but who is holding out for the best offers from galleries in the city. Blake wears dark glasses to fuel his image. He manipulates Angie and claims that she will have to “woo” him before he exhibits in the gallery.
Nonna, like a fairy godmother who is gentle, funny and sweet, guides Angie and encourages her against Blake and toward Seth. Of course our own weaknesses sometimes lead us to be enamored of individuals who will hurt us, and reject others for whom we are well- suited. Angie is initially attracted to Blake and assesses that Seth is not her type and his religion is a barrier which she is not interested in climbing over.
How the playwright turns these developments on their head becomes the focal point in the action, with complications added by Rachel (Lauren Singerman) Seth’s sister after Angie begins to return Seth’s interest in her. Rachel is another aspect and voice of traditionalism. But unlike Nonna, hers is predicated not on love, but on fear. On the one hand, she wants her brother to move on with life after his divorce and dismiss the recriminations he feels against his parents who forced a marriage on him that he lacked the courage to prevent. Yet, traditionally, she believes Seth should be with a nice, safe, Orthodox Jewish girl, and she has the right woman for him. Furthermore, Rachel’s interference in her brother’s life is rather witchy. She discourages his interest in Angie and encourages him to return to his community in Riverdale that he moved away from prompted by the negativity and depression of his divorce.
Another complication is Blake’s facade of unreality. It masks his troubled nature and his doubts about where he is going with his art. Ultimately, when he is unmasked, his artistic ambivalence and his relationship with another woman deep six his moving forward with Angie as a love interest and as an exhibiting artist. It appears that despite Nonna’s good will, cheerfulness and her advice to Angie about hearing the music of love, her granddaughter is going to be alone. Indeed, both Seth and Blake turn away from her.
This is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see this endearing romantic comedy to discover how Gitter resolves the conflicts and discovers answers for those who are bound by traditions whether self-imposed or externally imposed by cultural mores that perhaps are less stringent than one might imagine. One has only to test the boundaries of love to understand whether such external mores enhance living as they are supposed to, or nullify it which runs counter to love. Also, one must reject the traditionalism of believing if love failed once, it will fail again because one is incapable of finding it. Sometimes, love arrives in the most surprising ways.
The ensemble brings home the laughter seamlessly and the jokes centered about being Jewish and Jewish men are particularly hysterical. For the staging (set design by Christopher and Justin Swader) boxes are employed to suggest Angie’s apartment, Seth and Rachel’s Knish shop, the gallery and more. The presentation is supplemented by apt video projections and music between various scene changes in an interesting, fanciful way. The props that serve to key in changes in the development of Angie’s relationship with Seth and Blake are well appointed and symbolic.
Gitter’s themes about love transcending internal and external traditions are important reminders in this social time of divides: progressive vs. reactionary. By the end of the play, Angie learns that Nonna was more progressive than Angie thought she was because of Angie’s inflexibility about relaxing her perceptions of men. Likewise, Rachel is taught a lesson by her brother and learns to relax her own inflexibility as Seth begins to hope his life will turn away from despair.
Kudos to the creative team who brought Brancato’s vision of Gitter’s humorous play to the stage: Christopher & Justin Swader (scenic designers) Gregory Gale (costume designer) Todd O. Wren (lighting designer) Matt Otto (original music/sound designer) Yana Birÿkova (projection designer) Buffy Cardoza (properties).
The Sabbath Girl is just what is needed to brighten our hearts and spirits during the doldrums of February. You may see The Sabbath Girl at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th St. between Madison and Park) before it closes on 8th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.