In its time, “Crossing Delancey” was a beloved fairy tale story of an East Side romance. Susan Sadler’s 1985 play premiered at New York’s Jewish Repertory Theater and went on to become an instant classic in its 1988 film incarnation, starring Amy Irving. It’s got all the pieces of an incredibly successful romantic comedy, and, despite some potentially troubling antifeminist sentiments, the 26-year-old script still sparkles. Off-Broadsteet Theater’s current production, playing through Saturday, April 30, misses some of the grounding and humanity in the play itself, but thankfully, the sheer charm of the writing shines through.
Isabelle (Izzy to her friends, played with affable bounce by Alison Quairoli) is a 20-something girl working in a small bookstore uptown. she harbors a love of words, romanticism, and a vague, ill-defined notion of “female empowerment” and options which the play, thankfully, lets glide away. Her Bubbie (Irene Rose Wildgrube) is her lifeline to both a sense of order in her chaotic New York life and the sensibilities of the old world, which she actively chooses to deny. She pines after a smarmy writer and college professor named Tyler (Patrick Albanesius) and the entry into New York intelligentsia he provides.
Meanwhile, Bubbie and her marriage broker friend, Hannah (Marilyn Licciardello) have a match in mind for Izzy in the form of an orthodox, Lower East Side pickle merchant Sam (Barry Abramowitz). You can probably guess what happens next; it’s not a show for surprises, and we’re all okay with that, so long as there’s a happily ever after (of course there is!). And in that part, this production does right by all of us; there’s never any real debate as to whether or not she and Tyler are going to end up together, but there’s just enough delay that the dramatic tension between her and Sam is ratcheted up nicely. And Abramowitz’s Sam is a delight, full of quiet strength, patience, and a wonderful ability to listen to his fellow actors onstage. It’s easy to fall in love with him, and while the production as a whole suffers at times from a lack of believability, Abramowitz’s talents firmly anchor the scenes he’s in, and by extension bring out the best in his fellow actors.
It’s a need for the aforementioned believability, however, that keeps this show in the realm of “cute” when it has the potential to be lovely and beautiful; there’s ample room for depth and shading in this story of two Jewish women of different generations and their bonds with each other and their city; for the most part, these possibilities go unrealized. Izzy’s crush on Tyler comes across as nonsensical. Albanesius comes to the part with the necessary and appropriate ham-fisted jackassery to demonstrate that he’s clearly the wrong choice, but there’s no solid footing or three-dimensionality to the portrayal. It makes it look as if Izzy is hopelessly devoted to a vapid, charmless cartoon, which turns into an uncomfortable assessment of her intellectual capacity. Which is a shame.
Cultural conversations between her and Bubbie are very sweet, and only veer into moments of implausibility when the topic turns to loneliness and Bubbie’s desire to marry her off. Thank goodness, then, for Sam; Abramowitz’s very presence makes you forget, momentarily, that we’re on shaky ground as far as our faith in the world onstage is concerned. It’s a real testament to good stage acting — his ability to react and his patience in listening greatly enhance the scenes in which he’s featured.
When fully committed and with a giving scene partner, Alison Quairoli is full of charisma and pluck. She’s immensely likeable, and it’s not hard to see why Sam’s so enamored of her. It’s just really hard to understand why she’d even think about pursuing the daft Tyler. At one point, during a scene in the bookstore between Tyler and Izzy, an older gentleman at the table next to me whispered to his date “That guy’s a putz. What’s wrong with that girl?” If Izzy isn’t given a real choice between her aspirations as a “modern woman” and her uptown gentile suitor, and the benefits and love to be found in the lower east side with Sam, then this just becomes a story about a girl’s foolish notions of wanting more than her heritage and past have provided by her. Which brings us back to the antifeminist underpinnings to be found here.
This script is better than that, and I believe these performers are better than that. Notwithstanding, there are moments of real joy in this production. Good storytelling is about the suspension of disbelief, and if you go in with a desire for a storybook tale — to say nothing of a hankering for a good piece of cheesecake for dessert — you’ll do just fine.
Crossing Delancey, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, Romantic drama set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Through Saturday, April 30. $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.