Avenue Theatre

It can’t be a coincidence that Susan Sandler’s charming romantic comedy Crossing Delancey first opened in New York City in April 1985, smack-dab in the middle of the most backward-looking decade in recent memory. After all, Crossing Delancey reaffirms many of the central tenets of the Reagan reaction: that the old ways were the best ways, that baby boomers were foolish to try to live lives different from their parents’, and that women in particular were misguided to think that self-satisfaction was more important than marriage and family.

Of course Sandler wrapped these Reagan-ish notions in a story even liberal Democrats could enjoy: somewhat yupped Isabelle Grossman thinks she’s in love with a self-absorbed WASP novelist, but eventually finds true happiness when her bubbie and a marriage broker fix her up with a nice Jewish boy from the old neighborhood who goes to shul every day and makes his living selling pickles at the company he inherited from his father.

And Sandler’s play is far subtler and richer than this plot summary suggests. Although she could have filled her story with a collection of stereotypes–the foolish, headstrong granddaughter, the wise bubbie, the kvetching matchmaker–Sandler has clearly worked hard to give her characters depth. Sandler draws Isabelle not as career-crazed yuppie but as a quiet woman who daydreams a little too much for her own good. Similarly, Sam the pickle man is also something of a poet who studied literature before his father died. Even marriage broker Hannah is drawn with much more detail than your stock matchmaker; Sandler hints that her husband committed suicide.

Sandler tells her story with a grace and economy that was lost in the film version of the play (which she also wrote). In the stage play, Sandler doesn’t waste a word. Her liberal use of Yiddish (which might frustrate those who don’t know the difference between a schmendrick and a shmatte, an alta cocker and an altar boy) serves double duty in Crossing Delancey: it makes Bubbie’s and Hannah’s dialogue sound more authentic, and it underscores Isabelle’s preference for Jewish Sam over WASP-y Tyler; one of the few lines of Yiddish she utters in the play, “Kush mir in tuchas” (“Kiss my ass”), comes when she leaves Tyler.

Avenue Productions (in association with the Kimetic Theatre Company) has done a superb job bringing the richness of this play to life. Designer Bruce Brown has ingeniously found a way to cram a two-location set (Bubbie’s apartment and Isabelle’s bookstore) into a performing space about the size of your average kitchen, and director Hyman Mann has assembled a wonderful cast of actors for the show, among them Rosh Kagen (as Bubbie), Jay Geller (as Sam), and Eileen Niccolai (as Hannah).

But it’s Danit Ben-Ari’s performance as Isabelle that really makes this production go. From the first moment of the play, Ben-Ari wins over her audience, portraying every facet of Isabelle’s character with equal ease, and in the process turning a character who could, in the wrong hands (say, Amy Irving), seem annoyingly passive and a little slow into a likable and intelligent character. By the time intermission rolls around, Danit Ben-Ari owns the audience, having in a mere 45 minutes transformed herself so completely into the perfect granddaughter that the bubbie sitting in front of me couldn’t help but gasp in approval at one of Ben-Ari’s entrances, “Cute, such a gorgeous figure!”

None of this, however, quite compensates for the fact that embedded in this absorbing and entertaining romantic comedy is a decidedly old-fashioned idea: that all a nice Jewish girl needs to be happy is a nice Jewish boy from the old neighborhood.