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The Housewives of Mannheim

Alan Brody's nuanced drama focuses on a group of women in Brooklyn during World War II.

Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania
in The Housewives of Mannheim
(© SuzAnne Barabas)
Jessica L. Parks' set for Alan Brody's nuanced 1944-set-drama The Housewives of Mannheim, now at 59E59Theaters, is so true to the movie norm of the day you half expect the actors to materialize in black and white. The tidy Brooklyn kitchen, with its gas stove and new-fangled "fridge," belongs to May (Pheonix Vaughn), who is as Betty Grable-pretty as she is unsophisticated.

We first see her sneaking a peek at an oversize book, which she's quick to hide when a neighbor, Alice (Wendy Peace), comes kibitzing, hoping to cadge some spare labels. Alice fancies herself a contest queen, even if the winners are "always from someplace in South Dakota." She's also the self-appointed neighborhood snoop: unprompted, she provides an itemized list of the furniture -- including a grand piano -- being funneled into a turned-over apartment.

The complex's new tenant, Sophie (Natalie Mosco, true to character but nonetheless affected), an elegant German widow whose career as concert pianist was quashed by Nazism, will soon put in an appearance -- but not before May's closest friend, Billie (Corey Tazmania), blows in, peddling linens and using language that would make a sailor blush.

Billie's an original, no doubt about it, and the atmosphere starts to crackle the minute she shows up. Not only does Tazmania defy you to take your eyes off her, but her Billie is aboil with as yet unexpressed passions, and not just for selvage and Chantilly lace.

Meanwhile, Sophie proves a catalyst for May. During her husband's long absence overseas, May has begun to develop some cultural curiosity and personal ambition. After hearing about the fictional Vermeer painting that gives the show its title discussed on a radio talk show, she has actually taken the initiative to go into Manhattan and visit the Metropolitan Museum -- and she's now eager to broaden her horizons further before resuming the role of dutiful spouse. May gloms onto this visitor from a far more rarefied milieu like a schoolgirl with a crush, and her new allegiance proves a tipping point for Billie's own long-suppressed obsession.

Brody and director SuzAnne Barabas handles the ensuing seduction scene -- and its chastening aftermath -- with extraordinary sensitivity, even if it somewhat schematically draws parallels between anti-Semitism and the intolerance that continues to surround sexual preference. May is revealed to be more clued-in than she lets on; still, it's difficult to imagine someone quite so gushily naïve to begin with.