A superb cast is the highlight of the world premiere of The Dressmaker’s Secret, a play with a compelling story and intriguing characters that nearly get lost in a somewhat muddled production running at 59E59 through March 5. It’s late 1963, and Hungarian refugee Mária (Tracy Sallows) and her nineteen-year-old son, Robi (Bryan Burton), are living a meager existence in Kolozsvár in Romania. Mária is a very serious, dour woman who wants only the best for her son, an electrician who dreams about moving to America. He’s at odds with his mother, who refuses to tell him who his father is. “I love you,” Mária says. “I hate you. I want my own life, away from you and away from this country,” Robi responds before apologizing. The dowdy Mária is making a stylish dress for her long-estranged friend Irma (Caralyn Kozlowski), a tall, beautiful woman whose brother, Robert (Robert S. Gregory), might be Robi’s father, but Mária’s not talking. Slowly — and slowly is the operative word here — the four characters reveal secret after secret, leading to a tear-jerking finale that would make the Lifetime network proud.
The Dressmaker’s Secret was cowritten by opera singer and playwright Sarah Levine Simon (The Portrait) and Vassar professor Mihai Grünfeld, adapted from his unpublished novel and inspired by his memoir, Leaving: Memories of Romania. Directed by Roger Hendricks Simon (Bard at the Bar), who is married to Sarah, the production suffers from seemingly endless set changes between more than a dozen scenes that unnecessarily bring the action to a halt, especially in the tiny, intimate theater where the audience is practically sitting on the stage. The show would have benefited greatly from a more imaginative set design that kept things simple. At nearly two and a half hours, the play is also in need of severe trimming and much less repetition. The play’s best line, and it’s an emotional powerhouse, ends up feeling clichéd after it pops up twice more. But still, the central story, a kind of Sophie’s Choice with political intrigue and ramifications that are relevant given the current refugee crisis, is riveting, and the acting is excellent. Gregory (Othello, The Glass Menagerie) brings a Shakespearean bravura to the bold Robert, Burton (The Night Of; Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter) has just the right amount of naïveté as the confused Robi, Kozlowski (Prodigal Son, Dirty Dancing) is sexy and charming as the fashionable Irma, and Sallows (The Audience, Angels in America) plays the deeply conflicted Mária with grace and dignity. It may take a little work on the part of the audience, but there’s plenty to like about The Dressmaker’s Secret, despite the rough edges.