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Review: In ‘The Dressmaker’s Secret’ Nothing Is What It Seams

By Justin Sharon, Contributing Writer, February 15, 2017

Last Thursday night for New York Fashion Week, Kendall Jenner set the catwalk crowd cooing in barely-there intimate apparel from La Perla. My invitation having inexplicably been lost in the mail, I instead experienced a couture-related evening of an altogether different kind.

The Dressmaker’s Secret, receiving its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters, takes place in 1963, which was coincidentally when The Sound of Music wrapped up ts original Broadway run. Indeed both productions essentially boil down to the same existential question, namely “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” The titular character here, a seamstress played by Tracy Sallows, is still haunted by events of a generation ago. To quote the script, “It’s time to heal the past.” (Presumably with a stitch in time.) Twenty years earlier she was pregnant, engaged to a member of the Hungarian army and simultaneously in love with a Jewish man who ended up at Auschwitz. Her 18-year-old son Robi (Bryan Burton), a boy amid the mannequins, is as keen to solve the enduring mystery of his father’s identity as he is to escape to America. Marlboro cigarettes, dollar bills, and Life magazine are all props that evoke the promised land of the west. (Ironically, the copy of Life that Robi brandishes commemorates JFK’s death. Thus the country he so covets has already passed its peak, at least according to Don DeLillo’s assessment of that Dallas day as “the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century”.) Caralyn Kozlowski’s Irma portrays a middle-aged piano teacher who has her own checkered history with Maria. Robert S. Gregory rounds out the cast as Robert, the onetime military officer who is now an engineer based in West Berlin. His unexpected return causes much confusion.

The Cold War — along with the conflict’s coiner George Orwell — is clearly having a cultural moment. Atomic age nostalgia has made a sleeper hit of The Americans, whose upcoming season five debut similarly teases us with secrets. As such, The Dressmaker’s Secret has cottoned on to something and could find a receptive audience. Warsaw Pact weave makers battling muslin have a quaintly innocent appeal amid today’s full throttle war on terror. While swinging London and the rest of the west enjoyed the delights of Georgy Girl, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej ran Romania with an iron fist during the decade. The spare set, with its crackling radio and spartan furniture, evokes the old country effectively, as do characters who don Babushka headscarves and read coffee grounds. Meanwhile the actors are impressively impervious to surroundings so claustrophobic that when front row theater goers shuffled their feet, the floorboards audibly creaked. Never mind the Berlin Wall, in less capable hands the fourth wall could easily have come crashing down.

Burton does a solid job as mop topped Robi, Sallows dispenses some effective zingers from her Singer and the second half arrival of Gregory, a talented performer who has a touch of Rod Steiger about him, injects much-needed energy after a somewhat sluggish first half. For sustained excellence, Kozlowski is the show’s standout performer. Alternating between red dresses and red nightgowns, she exudes the Slavic sensuality of a young Zsa Zsa Gabor while concurrently casting serious doubt on the notion that blondes have more fun. The actress brings poignancy and pathos to her role, aided by the saddest smile I’ve ever seen. Clearly, there are skeletal ghosts galore sharing coveted closet space with her designer wardrobe.

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The Dressmaker’s Secret at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, for a limited engagement through March 5. Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. By Sarah Levine Simon and Mihai Grunfeld, based on a novel by Mihai Grunfeld. Directed by Roger Hendricks Simon; costume design by Molly R. Seidel; lighting design by Stephen C. Jones. Cast: Bryan Burton (Robi), Robert S. Gregory (Robert), Caralyn Kozlowski (Irma) and Tracy Sallows (Maria).


Cover: (l. to r.)  Tracy Sallows and Caralyn Kozlowski in ‘The Dressmaker’s Secret;’ photo: Carol Rosegg


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