‘The longest journey in the world,” Norman Podhoretz once ruefully noted, “is the journey between Brooklyn and Manhattan.”
For the working-class Jewish family in Gary Morgenstein’s new play, “A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx,” an even longer trip is that between the city and the suburbs. The play centers on the conflict between Harry Simms (Bruce Levy) and his daughter Eleanor (Alyson Linefsky) and grandson Elliot (Troy Dane) when Harry balks at providing the financial assistance needed for the down payment on a house in Huntington, L.I.
The play is presented by Bravo Productions in association with the Guild of Italian-American Actors.
Directed by Carlo Fiorletta, “A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx” is set in the mid-1960s, at a time when most New York Jews still worked in blue-collar trades and small businesses. The father in the play, Sammy (Simcha Borenstein), is a low-paid, unionized paperhanger who is dependent on the largesse of his father-in-law, a successful painting contractor.
The title, which is inspired by Betty Smith’s 1940s novel-turned- Broadway musical, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” refers to Sammy’s frustrated effort to grow tomatoes on the fire escape of his tenement.
“A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx” is Morgenstein’s second play. His prescient first play, “Ponzi Man,” ran at the Fringe Festival in 2005, three years before the Madoff scandal broke. A public relations executive with the Syfy online television network, Morgenstein has penned four novels, including “Loving Rabbi Thalia Kleinman,” about a middle-aged man who falls for a woman rabbi. He also authored a dating advice book, “How to Find a Woman … Or Not.” And he hosts a BlogTalkRadio.com show called “Purple Haze.”
Morgenstein told The Jewish Week that the play is set at a time of American “innocence,” just before the nation became embroiled in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement moved into full swing. The theme of naiveté is one that carries through the play. When the family meets with the realtor, Madeline (Jessica Renee Russell), they discover that they will need to buy a lawnmower and that they cannot just bang on the radiator when they want the landlord to send up more heat.
The playwright grew up six blocks from Yankee Stadium, in a neighborhood that was notable for its mix of ethnic groups.
“I heard so many different languages,” he recalled. “I understood people by the way they talked with their hands.” His mother always served fish rather than meat on Friday nights, just as her Catholic neighbors did.
Yet the movement to the suburbs is also, Morgenstein, noted, a move away from the family’s roots. As Jews become more “upscale,” he said, they become more acculturated into American society. Nowadays, with the popping of the housing market bubble, Morgenstein asks if buying a home is still a necessary step to becoming American. “Is that anymore the American Dream?”
“A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx” runs from Sept. 22-26 at the Producers Club, 358 W. 44th St. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. with weekend matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call TheaterMania at (866) 811-4111.