Moving to the suburbs was one of the biggest steps that many New York Jews ever took, one largely made possible by postwar Jewish builders and entrepreneurs. But what about those who could not afford to move?
In Andrew Heinze’s one-act play, “The Invention of the Living Room,” a struggling Jewish family on the Lower East Side hits on a novel way to create more living space. The play, which is being presented as part of a series of one-acts dealing with the theme of pioneering, opened last week at Metropolitan Playhouse in the East Village.
Directed by Stephen Pelletier, “The Invention of the Living Room,” set in 1943, depicts the cramped immigrant family of a construction foreman, Abraham Levin (Tony Rossi). As they wait for the war to end and the building boom to begin, the men of the family, including the son (Sam Heldt) and religious uncle (Don Arrington), decide that the only way to keep their sanity is to invade the parlor, which the mother, Bessie (Victoria Castle) has kept inviolate as a symbol of the family’s respectability. In the ensuing conflict, the family enacts the kind of conquest of virgin territory that was to become so prevalent in the postwar suburban migration.
Heinze, who was a tenured professor at the University of San Francisco, authored major works on American Jewish history, including “Adapting to Abundance,” about consumption patterns on the Lower East Side, and “Jews and the American Soul,” about influential Jewish thinkers. In 2007, he left academia, moved to New York, and became a full-time playwright. He has written many plays, including a number of short comedies with Jewish themes such as “The Bar Mitzvah of Jesus Goldfarb” and “Masha: Conditions in the Holy Land.”
In an interview, Heinze told The Jewish Week that he spent half of his childhood in a New Jersey development built by William Levitt, who built Levittown on Long Island, as well as in Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and other places. “People who didn’t have much money could afford [such developments],” he said. “It made American life possible.”
While Bessie shudderingly connects her family’s desire for more room with the Nazi territorial expansion program known as Lebensraum (“living room”), her family views the parlor as a new frontier. Heinze pointed out that the play presents a “new American Dream of the home versus a more traditional, immigrant conception.” It’s about Jews’ voluntary displacement, he explained, their “search for — and definition of — a viable living space.”
“The Invention of the Living Room” runs at Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. Fourth St. Remaining evening performances are Thursday, April 25; Monday, April 29 and Saturday, May 4 at 7 p.m. Matinee performances are on Saturday, April 27 at 1 p.m. and Sunday, May 5 at 4 p.m. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.metropolitanplayhouse.org.