In the lonely wake of a divorce, Seth Konig is translating some Yiddish stories called “The Jews with the Broken Heart” into English. Next door, Angie Mastrantoni eats cornflakes most nights for dinner, after working long days as curator of an art gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. They meet on a sweltering summer Shabbat, when Seth, an observant, kipa-wearing Jew, needs someone to turn on his air conditioning.
Their stories unfold in Cary Gitter’s new play, “The Sabbath Girl,” which is having its premiere Off-Broadway run through March 8 at 59E59 Theaters. A romantic comedy set in present-day New York City, the play’s theme might be familiar — a young Jewish man meets a young Italian woman — but Gitter’s take is his own, particular to his experience.
When Seth, who works in his family’s knish shop on the Lower East Side, knocks on his neighbor’s door on the Upper West Side, he expects to find the Korean guy who often helps him when he needs something done on Shabbat. But it turns out the neighbor has moved, and Seth has to start explaining to Angie what he needs her to do and why he can’t do it himself.
“The Sabbath Girl,” which was selected as a finalist by the Jewish Plays Project, also features Angie’s grandmother, Sophia, a romantic who keeps showing up and sharing advice; Seth’s sister Rachel, who also works at Konig’s Knishes and tries to keep a close eye on her brother; and a brooding young artist named Blake, who is being wooed to Angie’s gallery.
Gitter’s own family background is a mix of cultures: Growing up in Leonia, he had Yiddish-speaking paternal grandparents, and his mother’s family was Italian. His mother converted to Judaism, and she became the family member most involved in their Reform synagogue.
Gitter grew up close to both sides of the family. His Italian grandmother and great-aunts, as well as his Jewish grandmother, inform the lovingly blunt Sophia. His 2017 play, “How My Grandparents Fell in Love,” was based on his father’s parents’ first encounter in pre-World War II Poland. (Originally presented at the New York Ensemble Studio Theatre — where he’s a member of its Obie Award-winning Youngblood group — later that year “Grandparents” was part of the opening night lineup of the “Theatre Brut” Festival of One Acts at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.)
“You can work within a framework and make it your own and make it authentic, rather than a formula,” Gitter said in an interview. “I try to work against stereotypes and be really specific about the characters I’m writing about.”
Growing up in Jersey, Gitter traveled to New York City often to see theater and films with his parents. In high school, he won a tristate playwriting competition, and his winning one-act play was presented by a professional director and actors. Seeing his creation enacted on stage before an audience inspired him to pursue the craft, and he went on to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for a B.A. in playwriting and an M.A. in English and American literature.
He has since become a much lauded, multi-awarded, young (he’s 32) artist whose already impressive roster of works includes several whose themes — and sometimes targets — are Jewish culture and characters (he was a finalist in the international Jewish Playwriting Contest). He’s even set some of his works in the suburban Jewish milieu of River Hill, a fictionalized version of his hometown in Bergen County.
Why, when so many of his Jewish writer peers steer clear of Jewish tropes, as Gitter himself observed, is he drawn to them?
It is because in Jewish life he finds “so much culture and humor and contradiction and really fertile dramatic material,” he told NJJN in a 2017 interview. In Jewish characters and stories, he said, “there’s so much constant questioning, argument, discussion that lends itself to plays and drama.
As a writer, Gitter said, “I feel I have special authority to write about Jewish stuff — something that’s my own.”
He acknowledged that “in a way it’s a throwback, an anachronism” that he focuses on such themes — but a throwback to an estimable literary tradition. “I worship the mid-20th-century Jewish writers,” he said in 2017. “I discovered Philip Roth in college, first through his ‘American Pastoral,’ and was so taken with his portrait of Jewish Newark in the ’40s and ’50s.” That era as depicted in Roth’s work echoed Gitter’s own late father’s upbringing in Jersey City, and, he said, he found in it a compelling creative introduction to the rich cultural legacy of the Jews.
He also loves Nora Ephron’s sensibility and Joan Micklin Silver’s filmmaking. In fact, in “The Sabbath Girl,” there’s a nod to the pickle man in Micklin Silver’s “Crossing Delancey” — a 1988 film he calls “a Jewish New York romantic comedy touchstone.”
“With a few famous exceptions,” he continued, “I haven’t seen Orthodox characters in a play, depicted realistically. I feel good about having a piece like this on stage right now.
“And at this moment, with a resurgence of anti-Semitism, this play has gained a relevance I didn’t intend.
“The Sabbath Girl” was first produced last summer at Penguin Rep, the theater artistic director Joe Brancato and others founded 40 years ago in an 1880s barn in the Hudson Valley town of Stony Point.
About the theme of cross-cultural dating and intermarriage, Gitter said, “The play is about people trying to connect across complex, difficult circumstances. I don’t know if I have an answer. I just want to dramatize the struggle, without taking a position on it.”
‘Love supersedes the rules’
I was present at the first rehearsal for the Off-Broadway run, known as a table read, where the actors, director, playwright, and other members of the production team sat around a table reading from and marking scripts. The dialogue is smart, quick, and funny.
Gitter had brought along a bag of knishes for all to share, along with mustard, as is the knish shop’s style. A copy of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Sabbath” was on the table; Jeremy Rishe, who plays Seth, had been reading it in preparing for the show.
Rishe, a Brooklynite who grew up in Utah, is the star of Cameron Bossert’s film “Jewtah,” which is based on his life. “Specificity of environment informs me a lot as an actor,” he said to explain his wandering around Riverdale in the Bronx, where Seth grew up, as well as the Upper West Side, where the play is set.
“I try to tap into the type of Jew Seth is and where that intersects with who I am. I’m not rehearsing a trope of what a religious Jew from New York is supposed to be. I’m thinking, Where do I live in this character? How do I bring Seth to life?”
Rishe, who describes Seth as Modern Orthodox, but leaning a little toward Old World Orthodox, said, “My daily life doesn’t reflect Seth’s, but I can connect to his deep connection to God. He seems to be someone who starts to bump up against tradition, although his belief in God and love of ritual and Torah is strong.”
The cast also features Angelina Fiordellisi as Sophia, Ty Molbak as Blake, and Lauren Singerman as Rachel.
Brancato, the director, grew up, like Seth, in both Jewish and Italian cultures. He said that his father, who was not Jewish, was raised around Jews in Brooklyn and knew Yiddish; his family celebrated all holidays.
“I am drawn to stories that are relatable to me, that I can bring something out in, to reach beyond my experience,” he said in an interview.
“We need to remind the audience that we’re all in this together, regardless of our differences. It’s ultimately based on love.” He quotes a Talmudic line mentioned in the play: “Three things have a faint savor of the world to come: Sabbath, the sun, and love.”
“Love supersedes any rule,” said Brancato. “This is scandalous to some. The whole idea of assimilation is a debatable and personal choice. The play raises the issue in a gentle and magical way. This leaves you with an uplift and hopefulness. I’d stand by that any day, given what we deal with in the real world, in our country.”
Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.