In The Housewives of Mannheim, a “memory play,” playwright Alan Brody sees the Second World War as a great turning point in American culture and locates its point of greatest impact within the institution of marriage. The protagonist of Housewives is 28-year-old May Black (Pheonix Vaughn), a blonde beauty with one son (never seen onstage) and a husband who’s off fighting the war. May’s daily routine revolves around the other women in her Brooklyn apartment building and all the little tasks required to make a home during a time of scarcity. In the opening scene, we witness the divergent styles of her two best friends. There’s Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace), the uptight and rule-abiding neighbor who frets about the way May leaves her front door unlocked during the day, and then there’s Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania), the upstairs neighbor whose husband, a dentist, is still at home and who lives for the moment, buying black market steaks on the King’s Highway and putting down her dull husband and sneaking out to “Bohemian” parties while he’s home watching the kids.
The first hint that this trio will not make for a stable situation comes when a new woman, Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), moves into a vacant apartment in the building and begins to negotiate for a place within the circle of friends. May accepts Sophie too readily, frightening this older and more reserved European refugee with the starkness of her hunger for companionship and for news of the larger world. A great deal of the interest of The Housewives of Mannheim derives from the extraordinary language the playwright gives his characters. Alice, Billie, and May all speak variants on demotic “Brooklynese,” with May adding occasional poetic touches to indicate her yearning for something more. Sophie, on the other hand, is a concert pianist originally from Vienna, and she struggles to blend in linguistically, while simultaneously drawing strength from a more formal version of English that sounds like that of another, more famous Viennese refugee—the insightful Dr. Sigmund Freud.
Without spoiling the excellent and very dramatic revelation on which the climax of The Housewives of Mannheim depends, it can nevertheless be said that audiences are in for a wild ride as the characters delve ever deeper into what it means to be a woman during this crucial period of experimentation in American life. All of the actresses are superb, with Vaughn as May and Tazmania as Billie giving particularly vivid and memorable performances. People will be talking about this outstanding West Coast premiere for many weeks to come.