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Theater Review:

"THE GLAMOUR HOUSE" at Victory Gardens Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Playwright Lydia Stryk may probe the idea of women’s inner neediness cloaked in the façade of stylish dress in "The Glamour House," receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater. But she over-sells her metaphoric premise of outward accoutrements often hiding the repressed dreams her female characters clasp firmly within their hearts. This one-dimensional approach to a story with such emotionally complex promise renders her play predictable and superficial – all the more disappointing because Stryk’s two main characters are written with great care and passion.

Set in Trudi Stein’s dress shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1947, "The Glamour House" opens with the mysterious arrival of a young girl from Germany, Esther Bayer, whom the rigidly elegant Trudi hires as a salesgirl. Esther’s honesty and enthusiasm quickly make her a favorite among the immigrant customers looking to reinforce their new lives with a fresh wardrobe.

But an icy pall hangs over the store in the person of Trudi Stein – an enigmatic woman who craves silence and formality, evident in the curt way she instructs Esther to count to certain numbers before approaching clients or checking on them in the dressing room. Trudi, who appears to be dead inside, resists any natural emotions -- using subtle manipulation and intimidation as iron defense mechanisms.

Commenting with honest, albeit stereotypical, humor on the troublesome goings on at the store is Trudi’s Puerto Rican seamstress Rosa Perez. She befriends the vibrant but sad Esther, who reveals to Rosa – in a problematic scene that makes Rosa seem incredibly dim-witted – how she survived concentration-camp horrors but suffered the loss of her mother and husband. We also learn that Esther dreams of becoming a torch singer.

One of the most meaningful speeches is delivered by Rosa, who philosophizes how "the dress, the skirt, are only fabric. Held together by simple thread. Fabric and thread. But what they promise! Love and romance. A feeling good where only pain is. A feeling strong where fear is." But Rosa also is saddled with trite lines about the Statue of Liberty’s torch lighting the way to a new life.

Stryk’s fortifying ideas never really take off, mainly because she fails to fully develop her characters. Certain relationships, like Esther’s silly and odd "romance" with an Italian-American war veteran, dangle in oblivion. The only customer we meet is the robust and gregarious German immigrant Mrs. Pauschel – extremely limiting for a story set in a dress shop and pondering the notion of selling illusions to a variety of women.

While director Sandy Shinner has assembled a respected cast, Victory Gardens’ production is as plodding as the script. And one almost feels accosted by the actors’ parade of exaggerated accents. Deanna Dunagan as the bitterly taciturn Trudi delivers the sturdiest and most illuminating performance -- right down to the prim and exacting manner she attaches safety pins to price tags or writes in her ledger. She makes us believe that only the most brutal of outside forces could have squelched an overabundance of passion. As Esther, Anne Fogarty remains a deeply sad and reflective figure beneath her glowing and tender exterior.

The remaining actors have very little room to truly humanize their caricaturized roles. Carmen Roman, one of the city’s most enduring and committed actors, feels like she’s been retrofitted into the condescendingly written role of Rosa. Cindy Gold as the pastry-scarfing Mrs. Pauschel also slides into the realm of cartoon; and Marc Jablon is stuck with the thankless role of Tony Puccini, Esther’s clumsy suitor whose conversation consists of cliched references to his mom’s spaghetti and meatballs. He also tends to jab the air with his fedora.

Victory Gardens’ more recent plays have been set on front porches. With "The Glamour House," the theater – thanks to Timothy Morrison’s gracious scenic design and Rita Pietraszek’s film-set lighting – moves into a refined boutique. Judith Lundberg’s crisp satin and crepe costumes continue the tasteful design aesthetic.

Stryk’s well-intentioned but half-realized play, however, fails to get to the core of her characters’ profoundly pained longing and sense of loss. When she gives us a contrived and hackneyed Hollywood ending, all of her potentially luminous ideas fall apart at the seams.

"The Glamour House" runs through December 23 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $28-$33. Call 773-871-3000 or log onto www.victorygardens.org.
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