Off-Broadway Review: “The Dressmaker’s Secret” at 59E59 Theaters

David Roberts

OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

“The Dressmaker’s Secret” by Sarah Levine Simon and Mihal Grunfeld is enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters. The new play is based on Mr. Grunfeld’s novel “The Dressmaker’s Son” and the change from ‘son’ to ‘secret’ is more significant than might be obvious at first glance. Why did the playwrights shift the focus from the son to the mother’s secret? After all, the core of the new play centers on Robi (played with a palpable adolescent melancholy by Bryan Burton) and his desire to know who his father is and his overwhelming need to escape his humdrum existence with his mother Maria (payed with a deep-seated and enduring mourning by Tracy Sallows) in Kolozsvár a large city in Transylvania, Romania. The action of the play takes place in 1963, just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the United States during the communist oppression in Eastern Europe.

Maria is a dressmaker, barely making enough to support herself and Robi even with his meager wages as an electrician added to their joint income. Robi’s angst grows exponentially and his need to know who his father is and his desire to leave Communist Romania and “head west” frustrates Maria and results in frequent outbursts. Robi finds a photo of his mother with a soldier in uniform. Robi was told his father had died in the war but, after further conversations with Maria, he discovers that might not be true. In fact, his father could be Irma’s (Caralyn Kozlowski) brother Robert (the man in the photo) or it might be Zoltan (Zoli), the Jewish teacher friend Maria was seeing at the same him she was engaged to Robert (Robert S. Gregory). Apparently, this is dressmaker Maria’s secret – or perhaps there is yet another secret?

“The Dressmaker’s Secret” suffers from the lack of a clear and convincing dramatic arc. There are too many things going on. The characters are believable and have compelling conflicts. Unfortunately, these conflicts drive too many plots as opposed to contributing to the resolution of one main story line. Irma has her own secrets and needs to reconcile with her dear friend Maria. Irma’s brother Robert has more than one secret including an unnamed illness that results in frequent coughing bouts accompanied by an examination of his handkerchief. Had the play dealt with Maria’s willingness to give Robi a chance for a new life in the West, it would have had a deeper impact.

Mr. Simon’s direction leaves the talented cast wandering around the stage instead of staying in place and having a realistic conversation. And there is far too much busyness around plates, cups, food, and set changes. This all distracts from the important thread of the story. Unfortunately, the entire creative team seems to distract from the cast’s ability to do its important work. Why do Maria and Robi wear the same clothes in every scene despite the passage of time while Irma dons a different dress in almost every scene? Why does Robert have to show the audience he is ill more than once? It is clear he has some terminal disease. 

In short, an endearing story with potentially multilayered connections, is lost in an overly long production encumbered by inconsistent staging. The script calls for a typical fade down and fade in between scenes. Mr. Simon’s staging adds what seems to be a “photograph” of each scene – a click and a bright flash appear with no apparent reason. Communist spying? Family photo album? There is also the sound of the dressmaker’s sewing machine at the beginning of most scenes. Is this play about dressmaking? An effort to examine the road to Robi’s freedom in a shortened play would seem in order.


“The Dressmaker’s Secret is presented by The Simon Studio (Roger Hendricks Simon, Artistic Director) in association with Amanagion LLC.

The cast of the “The Dressmaker’s Secret” features Bryan Burton, Robert S. Gregory, Caralyn Kozlowski, and Tracy Sallows.
The design team includes Stephen T. Jones (set and lights) and Molly R. Seidel (costumes). The Production Stage Manager is Bethany Clark. Production photos by Carol Rosegg.

“The Dressmaker’s Secret” runs for a limited engagement through Sunday, March 5. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are $25.00 ($17.50 for 59E59 Members).  To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission.