ARCHIVE: The Real ‘Housewives’ of 1944

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By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit April 17, 2009)

Brooklyn, 1944. A time of ration cards and shortages. A life that centered around radio programs and Waldbaum’s and waiting for the men in your world to maybe make it home from the war. Even the big-league talent pool was so diluted that the St. Louis Browns actually won the pennant, for the first and only time.

For the bored bombshell May (Phoenix Vaughn), the building busybody Alice (Corey Tazmania) and the budding businesswoman Billie (Wendy Peace), a more or less orderly existence is about to be shaken up by a new arrival to the apartment house — Sophie (Natalie Mosco), an older, more sophisticated refugee from the turmoil of the European front.

That the self-contained world of the building surely gets shaken to its foundation probably goes without saying, as The Housewives of Mannheim captures that moment when a couple of faraway wars forced every American household to adapt — and the first tricklings of returning servicemen came home to households that, in many cases, had been irrevocably changed.

Such is the setting for Alan Brody’s ensemble comedy-drama, a “memory play” that makes its world premiere this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It’s directed by company co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, and it presents an all-female cast equally divided between a pair of NJ Rep veterans (Ms. Vaughn you might recall as the gorgeous mortal half of the recent musical Cupid and Psyche) and a couple of players making their mainstage debuts on the Shore stage.

Brody, by day a professor at MIT — a school not generally known as a training ground for the dramatic arts — dropped in at Long Branch during an electrically hectic week of rehearsal. Red Bank oRBit was there to catch him.

RED BANK ORBIT: At first glance, your play fits into what I guess we could call the STEEL MAGNOLIAS syndrome, in which a male playwright scripts a play with an all-female cast. Were you confident going into this project that you could get a convincing grip on the ways that women talk and interact with each other?

ALAN BRODY: I was willing to take that risk. It’s possible for men to write great roles for women, since when you’re a child you’re around your mother, and probably other women as well. At that age, you’re not socialized to not see things — you see the relationships between women in a different way than you might when you’re an adult.

Supposedly things have changed — I’m not sure how much they have — but this is certainly true of my generation. This play is a memory play; set in a time that’s been a real goldmine for me — the period when I was between six and twelve, thirteen years old. So I ended up trusting my ear.

The character of Billie is my best friend’s mother. I adored her; I always wanted to capture her — and here I found a structure that would make her happen on stage. She’s an energy source here.

With the understanding that the second world war worked its way into every aspect of American life, how big a role does it play here?  

Well, this play is the first in what I call the Victory Blues Trilogy — there’s this one, then all the characters are in the one called Victory Blues, where the men come home from the war. And then the latest project is called Are You Popular?  — it’s got all the characters from the second play plus three more, and it’s about what happens to these couples when they move to the suburbs.

In Housewives of Mannheim, which is the only one of the three plays to be produced so far, I deal with the underlying sense of fear that comes from the war taking place overseas. The roots of all that’s happening now; the seeds of everything we’ve known were planted back then. We won the war, we believed we were invincible — we still do, really; there’s that mindset at work.

I guess that’s something you’ve probably discussed many times with your young students. Tell me about your work at MIT — I wasn’t even aware they had theater professors there! 

They brought me there to start a theater program; they needed to build up the humanities and arts there at MIT. The thinking is, it’s designed to introduce scientists to what it’s like to be in the world as artists.

Have any of your students caught the theater bug from you and ditched the career in science and tech? 

If they have, I’d consider those to be my failures! It’s the ones who are able to practice their work, and to get that perspective that the arts programs provide, who get the most out of the program. On the faculty we have an understanding of what our mission is; we’ve been able to put together a great curriculum that’s meaningful to the students.

I still love teaching; it feeds my writing. And it feeds me — in order to be able to write what I want to write, I need the job. It’s the only way because you can’t make a living as a playwright. You can only make a ‘killing!’

Not to get all these-kids-today on you, but there’s as big a generational divide now in the ways that we communicate, as there’s ever been. What are some ways in which that works its way into your exchanges with students? Do they speak to you differently; do they write differently than you’ve been used to seeing in the past?

What’s peculiar to MIT, I guess, is that they’re all writing science fiction! Their language of metaphor — it’s a way of avoiding being emotionally involved sometimes. But at the same time there’s an expectation that everything has to have an interactive element to it.

The sense of structure has become very fragmented — whether by MTV, the internet, that sense of the unit is very different now. It’s hard to get students to understand the pleasure of sustaining a scene.

Yet when you look at some of the filmmakers with younger followings, who came up in the 1990s — Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino are good examples — these guys are all about the long, sustained scene. So much of their screenplays are lengthy conversations, and you stick with them because they’re often so much more interesting than a tired-looking action sequence. 

I suppose what I’m saying is that generationally there’s a different sense of literacy — we are all very literate people in our way. I remember when I was a young turk, telling myself that when I get old, I’m not going to be as closed-minded as the old folks were then. And now I look at my students and I realize that there’s an entirely different sky they live under than mine.

You’re certainly not the only person who’s grappling with the question of how to get younger audiences to come to the theater. 

We’re all still trying to figure that out. I suppose that one way to do it is to have that sort of commitment to new plays, like they do here. This place, New Jersey Rep, is one of the few that can do a reading of a new work and then follow through each step of the way to a finished production. Their commitment to good writing is terrific. To develop a new generation of theatergoers, we need to give them a sense of that commitment. And we need to make it all look easy!

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