Review: Housewives of Mannheim

Last Friday night, I had the honor of attending an opening weekend show of The Housewives of Mannheim at the Phoenix Theatre of Mass Ave in Indianapolis. The play premiered in Spring of 2009 at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, and the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis downtown, proudly shares its Midwest premiere with Hoosiers across central Indiana. The play is exactly the type of show Indianapolis theatre needs, yet shies away from because of the fear that Indianapolis  people are close minded when it comes to content. The fact that the Phoenix Theatre programs risky shows like The Housewives of Mannheim is precisely why it maintains an artistic edge on Indianapolis art.

Set in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York circa 1944, The Housewives of Mannheim shares the lives of women on the home front. Ultimately they are all reveled to be much different from the “We Can Do It” attitude of Rosy the Riveter. Though men are entirely absent from playwright Alan Brody’s world of war time housewives, their influence is an ever present force throughout the play. Slogan contest obsessed Alice establishes the feminine ideal in this world, where women are expected to wait patiently for the men to return as they diligently strive to keep things the same for their soldiers.

But with a new found sense of freedom, the beautiful May guiltily struggles to grow in her husband’s absence. All the while brash Billie, whose obvious dislike of her home bound husband provides plenty of comedic relief, gives a snap shot of Riveting Rosy’s independent mentality with much different ideology. When former European concert pianist, Sophie, escapes to Flatbush from Nazi occupied Europe, May finds solace in meeting a worldly woman from whom she can learn to step outside of herself. But as May discovers the difference between “willful innocence” and “willful ignorance” she is confronted with a view of the world that neither she, nor Brody’s audience, are expected to be faced with.

At first sight, Brody’s play is just another kitchen sink comedy set around World War II. But the journey he takes these women on proves to be timely, as it roots itself firmly in the idea of women’s liberation. As parallels are drawn between the four women of Housewives of Mannheim and the Flemish painting by the same name, audiences are asked to remember how the daily lives of women have evolved. Though women have changed, their struggles remain the same. As May ponders the lives of the women in the famous seventeenth century Flemish painting, her thinking extends (dangerously) to women of 1944, 2050 or even 1996. In this world, May discovers one question leads to two then to a million, opening a Pandora’s box of new ideas and definitions for words like good, bad, wife, woman, happiness and even sex.

In the role of May, Lauren Briggeman beautifully embodies the conflicts Brody creates. Briggeman effortlessly shifts her characters point of view. She ably transforms from an innocent housewife, eagerly asking bold questions, to an ignorant American, refusing to see the truth. Her talent is obvious as she pushes the audience to at once cheer for her and in the next moment jeer against her. Briggeman ably turns her character’s point of view on a dime. This would be wholly impossible if not for the support she receives from the rest of the cast.

In the role of Alice (which she originated in the New Jersey Rep premiere), Wendy Peace provides a foundation for conflict in the play. In this small part which is perfectly acted, Peace embodies the world outside May’s kitchen. Martha Jacobs as Sophie is intentional in her choices and precise in her performance, proving to be a perfect fit for the foreign matriarch of the play.

However, the standout performance from this play is found in Allison Moody’s portrayal of the bold Billie. With perfect comedic timing, Moody establishes Billie as a strong and funny, yet odd. Moody has the rare ability to communicate solely through her eyes as she moves effortlessly through the range of emotions her character experiences. She is sexy, smart and daring in her performance. Her command of the stage makes her attractive and enigmatic.

Amazingly the Phoenix Theatre attracted SuzAnne Barabas, director of the original New Jersey Rep production, to redo the show for Indy audiences. The challenge Barabas faces in this script is its dramatic shift from comedy in the first act to drama in the second. She sets the pace fast at the beginning gearing up to hit the audience with everything she can in preparation for Brody’s act break. At times, this kept the actors powering through lines over the audiences laughter, a freshmen mistake on stage. However, Barabas does this with a clear strategy in mind: “Don’t let them process anything until intermission.” As the second act opens, Barabas slows her players down, finally giving the audience room to think. Though the strategy is defensive and tricky, it works.

Karen Witting’s costumes on first glance seem to be a parade of vintage wear, always a fun task for a good designer like Ms. Witting. But on closer inspection, Witting’s subtle choices drive the play forward. She gently flows with the characters, conveying their change in a tangible way. Her intelligence shines through in the last scene of the first act, as she places both Billie and May in striking purple and pink dresses respectively (see above). The scenic design by James Gross is utilitarian. Vintage set pieces pepper a standard kitchen, giving the actors a believable playing space. The lighting design by Laura Glover through a bit obvious at times, set the tone of many scenes in a helpful way.

Stay tuned to Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. Treat yourself to an evening of theatre and dinner with your best gal pals. See our Indianapolis restaurant and Indianapolis bar listings for idea on great places to go in the Circle City. Let us be your source for Indianapolis entertainment.

The Housewives of Mannheim
Now through February 6, 2010

The Phoenix Theatre
749 North Park Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46202