The New Jewish Theatre closes its season with a charming production of Crossing Delancey, the play that was the basis for the better-known 1988 film of the same name directed by Joan Micklin Silver. The main character, Isabelle "Izzy" Grossman (Wendy Bagger in the NJT's production) is a thirtyish owner of a book store in Upper Manhattan, a subway ride and another world away from her old neighborhood on the Lower East Side.
Her bubbeh, played by Shirley Fredman, is of course concerned about her granddaughter's single status and conspires with local yenta Hannah (Eleanor Mullin) to fix Izzy up with Sam, the local pickle man. But Izzy is obsessed with Tyler (an appropriately conceited Jason Cannon), an egocentric author who visits her shop. It's a simple story, and we know how it's going to end, but it's an entertaining ride along the way.
Director Edward M. Coffield, the production manager at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, emphasizes the nice. There's none of the attitude or sexual tension that marked the relationship between the film's actors, Amy Irving and Peter Riegert. Coffield has chosen to set the play in the present, but it's very much a snapshot of the '80s, when the idea that yes, you can have it all was making life tough for women, and when the last generation of pre-Depression-born bubbehs still populated the Lower East Side.
Under Coffield's direction, Bagger stresses Izzy's earnestness and -- there's no other word for it -- niceness. Bagger's Izzy seems less in conflict over her roots then about how to get Tyler to pay attention to her. She doesn't resist Sam at all, just the old-fashioned machinations that bring them together, and, rather than fighting to escape traditions she detests, she simply seems amused by them. Usually a competent actress, Bagger glides past many discoveries in the script that should chip away at Izzy's resistance and lead to her transformation. Too often Coffield allows her to make the nice choice rather than the dramatic one. When she finally tells Bubbie about her "boyfriend," it's not, as the text indicates, to get her grandmother off her back but because she wants to share her excitement about the prospect of romance.
Crossing Delancey is about our expectations' and prejudices' being dashed: that the romantic author is really a heel, that the pickle man has depths you can't imagine. It's a message that's, well, nice and well supported by the performances of David Cooperstein and Mullin. Although her bracelets and bright-red hair scream stereotype, and the jokes about her appetite could easily become a stale running gag, Mullin gives Hannah the matchmaker a real sweetness and sincerity. This is a woman who brings people together not out of a desire to control but because she genuinely believes that no one should be alone. Cooperstein as Sam gives a heartfelt and honest performance as the confident, wise but somewhat nebbishy pickle man who knows what he wants out of life. As the manipulative and feisty Bubbie, Fredman is funny and appealing, the kind of grandmother who could drive you crazy with good intentions.
Costumer Betsy Krausnick makes odd choices that go against the text on several occasions. Once Bubbie comments on Izzy's "naked legs," even though she's wearing trousers. Later, when Sam dresses up to impress Izzy, the script says he's in an old-fashioned suit that makes him look like Vincent Price, but he's wearing a powder-blue tux, which is funny but confusing. As always, the small confines of the New Jewish Theatre are a delight, not only for watching good actors close-up but for getting to know your fellow audience members.