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Pity poor bookseller Izzy Grossman, the heroine of Washington Jewish Theatre’s Crossing Delancey. Satisfied with her job and apartment on the West Side, unmarried, and in her late 20s, Izzy is totally blindsided when her grandmother, her Bubbie, launches a campaign to find her a husband. Although the guy Bubbie turns up is a likable enough pickle seller named Sam, Izzy remains unconvinced. He drinks tea from glasses, not cups, and seems the exact opposite of Tyler Moss, the slick writer who breezes into her bookshop every few days.
“When it comes to love, these are serious people, these Jews,” Bubbie spouts, but thankfully, Susan Sandler’s semi-autobiographical play—an off-Broadway hit in 1985, later a film with Amy Irving as Izzy—keeps things light. The question Sandler wants to answer—which man, if either, Izzy will choose—doesn’t catapult Delancey into that canon of plays swollen with the transformative power of theater, but it at least provides enough juice to keep the audience involved and, most of the time, even grinning.
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The relationship at Delancey’s center isn’t between Izzy and either man, it’s between her and her grandmother. The first image the audience sees is of the two women, Izzy standing over her Bubbie, plucking hairs from her face with a pair of tweezers, each tug eliciting a yelp. This scene, like most things that pass between the two women, is both painful and tender. It’s a task that would be asked only of a favorite granddaughter. No surprise, then, that much of the show’s success rests on the actors playing these two parts. In this casting, Washington Jewish Theatre’s production is only half successful.
As written, Bubbie is very close to a caricature of the meddlesome Jewish grandmother who is forever ready with a jar of tagelah or a plate of blintzes, the widowed busybody who spews anecdotes like a jukebox on endless repeat. Wisely, Rosemary Knower fills Bubbie with such honesty and pluck that she never slips into that irritating stereotype. Her remarks to Izzy (“Loneliness is a sickness”) are delivered bluntly, but the affection she feels for her granddaughter is never in doubt. Knower shines whenever she’s onstage, maneuvering the pickle man and Izzy—and the audience—like knickknacks on a shelf, singing and dancing (and even playing possum) in a relentless effort to make the match stick.
At once helping and confounding Bubbie is an escapee from what must be Satan’s production of Fiddler on the Roof: Hannah the matchmaker. Jane Pesci-Townsend is a juggernaut in the role; her efforts to bring Izzy and Sam together (and, therefore, ensure payment of her fee) are so plodding that they threaten to wreck everything—including Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s well-assembled set. It’s a ball to watch Pesci-Townsend strut her stuff, and when she and Knower share the stage—whether they’re conspiring or sparring—everyone else flattens into two dimensions.
Especially Elizabeth Kitsos, whose Izzy hardly seems worth all the trouble Hannah and Bubbie go through. As Delancey’s narrator, she is meant to be the audience’s point of entry; it is her story we are supposed to follow, her daydreams we should revel in. But we don’t. Kitsos is merely competent in the role, her character much less appealing than she should be. Most of the time, Izzy’s notions about romance and independence come off as terribly superficial, though Kitsos does have two nice, simple moments: when she realizes (perhaps for the first time in her life) that she is being wooed, and when she catches a whiff of the vanilla milk Sam soaks his hands in to get rid of the smell of pickle juice. There’s nothing showy about these instants, but they mark the points where Kitsos is at her least affected and most engaging.
Of the two suitors, Terence Aselford’s Sam is given more to do—he explains the play’s title, for one thing—and he earnestly handles some of Sandler’s clumsiest lines (“This is all my heart on the table in front of you,” he tells Izzy). As the pretentious writer Izzy pines after, Teman Treadway is funny but too obvious. If his Tyler weren’t so conceited and sleazy, the play’s outcome would be more in doubt. Luckily, creating and then maintaining suspense isn’t on the playwright’s—or, for that matter, the director’s—agenda.
Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, Crossing Delancey is a slim play, and Surface does it justice by making sure her actors never linger too long over a punch line or cloying declaration. With nice technical and artistic support—especially from David Maddox’s musical score, which speeds the transitions between scenes—she keeps Delancey from degenerating into something it is not: an empty laugh-riot or overly sentimental love story. It remains, in her hands, what Sandler probably intended it to be: an immensely watchable, slightly rueful evening’s entertainment.