A Shiksa Goddess and Knish Mensch Find Love in The Sabbath Girl
Cary Gitter's interfaith romantic comedy is now running at 59E59 Theaters.
An Italian-American art curator and an Orthodox Jewish knish vendor fall in love across a cultural divide in the melting pot that is New York City's Upper West Side. Cary Gitter's new romantic comedy The Sabbath Girl, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters, loyally follows the Hallmark movie love story formula: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl work through their past romantic damage. Boy and girl fall in love against type because love comes from unexpected places and all that hooey about not needing a significant other was just a defensive expression of 21st-century bitterness.
Gitter's premise of an Orthodox man named Seth (Jeremy Rishe), fresh off a failed arranged marriage, falling for his new Shabbos goy Angie (Lauren Annunziata) is an entertaining one, and at times legitimately charming. The trouble is, it doesn't totally buy its own conceit. Instead of truly figuring out how such a matchless match could be organically made, it leans on silly character tropes that hover just above reality and make our emotional investment hover right there with it.
Of course, as the masters of this frothy genre know well, investment is half the battle for both romance and comedy — and both are cut off at the knees when our main characters' primary spiritual advisers are loose sketches of their defining cultures. On one side, you have "Nonna" Sophia (Angelina Fiordellisi), capering through her granddaughter's one-bedroom apartment with Italian vigor (but in an oddly Waspy frock courtesy of costume designer Gregory Gale) and advising her granddaughter to find her lifelong dancing partner — a concept the 30-year-old dating-fatigued Angie has no interest in. Seth's mentor, meanwhile, is his sister Rachel (Lauren Singerman), an observant Orthodox woman with an overbearing manner and a heavy-handed way with Yiddish.
Rachel is decidedly against marrying outside the faith, priding herself on the hard work she put into her own successful arranged marriage. Seth, however, has been "questioning" his given faith. Questioning what aspects of it specifically (aside from the arranged marriage part) he never says, because the playwright clearly considers this a "you get the gist" kind of situation. It's the same shallow treatment he gives to Angie's over-the-jerks-of-New-York-City attitude, though at least we get to witness the life cycle of one such jerk — a brilliant artist named Blake (Ty Molbak) with whom Angie mixes business with pleasure despite the notorious red flag of indoor sunglass wearing (projection designer Yana Birÿkova gives us some lovely samples his avant-garde work on the back wall where she also sets the scenes with various interiors and Manhattan vistas).
Even so, the allure of an unlikely love story can't be fully resisted in The Sabbath Girl, which has our Yiddish autodidact and his shiksa goddess share their first kiss before the Shabbos candles (she arrives that night under the auspices of an offer to adjust the A/C and it turns into a kind of Old Testament version of Roger and Mimi's "Light My Candle" flirtation). As Angie, Annunziata is a delight to watch, convincingly building her curiosity about the knish man down the hall, and even delivering her worshiping praise of Blake's soul-stirring portraits with credible sincerity. As Seth, Rishe leans hard in the sulking nebbish direction, but shows us enough of the sweetness and unassuming intellect that Angie finds so appealing that we eventually root for the pair right alongside their ultimate cheerleader, Nonna.
Like an interfaith Crossing Delancey, The Sabbath Girl wants to be a quirky, heartwarming romantic comedy where a beautiful and intelligent woman forgoes the egotistical artist in favor of the humble mensch (just trade pickles for knishes and Bubbie for Nonna). The Sabbath Girl, however, sacrifices the enchanting peculiarities that make legends of romantic pairs for the sake of a heavy-handed public service announcement about love transcending religion. That's a fine message, but before you set about changing the world, you need to tend to the basics.