Clothes may make the man, but in A Tailor Near Me at New Jersey Repertory Company, the man who makes the clothes captures the audience’s attention. Playwright Michael Tucker delivers a fairly standard-issue comedy on the subject of male bonding, which James Pickens Jr. elevates through a complex, sensitive performance as a man who sees the world from his sewing machine.
From the vantage point of his shop on the Lower East Side, which set designer Jessica Parks renders with pinpoint detail, Alfredo (Pickens) serves as therapist, sounding board, and aide-de-camp to Sam (Richard Kind), a new client who quickly becomes a fixture in his life. Like most men of a certain age, Sam finds that his pants now fit a little too snugly for comfort. Tucker weaves this metaphor into the fabric of the play, with Sam’s old duds representing the things in life we know we’ve outgrown but struggle to throw away once and for all.
As Alfredo builds a bespoke suit for Sam — a process that director James Glossman documents through scenes of precise fittings that feel authentic — Tucker shows how each man grapples with nostalgia and an uncertain future. Sam waits for the news of a longtime friend’s death, while Alfredo deals with the rapid, inevitable decline of his beloved wife. Their frequently convivial, sometimes combative interactions allow them to escape reality for a few moments, while also bringing into focus the challenges of growing older, which augurs not only the loss of loved ones but the disappearance of a certain sense of self.
Tucker frontloads the 90-minute play with too much exposition, having each character present their backstories in slightly labored ways. Elements that deserve great exploration — like when Sam fails to recognize that Alfredo, who is of Sephardic descent, is a fellow Jew — are played for humor and then largely tossed aside. Tucker finds great depth and pathos as he moves into the meat of the play, where the stakes become real, but compared to the overlong first scene, these moments can feel too fleeting.
Yet in Pickens’ capable hands, we cannot help but empathize and identify with Alfredo, a craftsman who brings the same attention to detail to life as he does to the fine garments he creates. Pickens brings the same mixture of warmth and authoritativeness that fans will recognize from his 19 seasons as Dr. Richard Webber on Grey’s Anatomy, and from the stage of a small theater where you can’t take your eyes off him, will notice how he always finds something intriguing to do, even in silence. Although his character is both modest and diminutive, Pickens commands the stage.
Kind also trades on his known persona — quick with a laugh, he stops the show cold with an old Borscht Belt joke about a terrible tailor — but finds depth that isn’t always clear in the writing. He presents a man at a crossroads, rich but unfulfilled, who hasn’t fully reconciled the ways in which his life didn’t turn out as he planned. Kind and Pickens create an unforced chemistry that convinces the viewer they could actually be friends, despite their many differences. What could have easily seemed schmaltzy instead comes across as heartfelt.
Kudos to costume designer Patricia Doherty: When Sam finally tries on his custom-made outfit, it looks like it’s worth the $1,400 that Alfredo charges Sam. The play itself could stand to be taken in at some areas and let out in others. But with actors like Pickens and Kind at the helm, you hardly notice the occasional loose stitch.