In the lonely wake of a divorce, Seth Konig is translating some Yiddish stories called “The Jews with the Broken Heart” into English. Next door, Angie Mastrantoni eats cornflakes most nights for dinner, after working long days as the head curator of a Chelsea art gallery. They meet on a sweltering summer Shabbat, when Seth, an observant Jew who wears a kipa, needs someone to turn on his air conditioning.
Their stories unfold in Cary Gitter’s new play, “The Sabbath Girl,” which will have its premiere Off-Broadway this month. A romantic comedy set in present-day New York City, the play’s theme might be familiar — a young Jewish man meets a young Italian woman — but Gitter’s take is his own, particular to his experience.
When Seth, who works in his family’s knish shop on the Lower East Side, knocks on his neighbor’s door on the Upper West Side, he expects to find the Korean guy who often helps him when he needs something done on Shabbat. But it turns out the neighbor has moved and Seth has to start explaining to Angie what he needs and why he can’t do it himself.
“The Sabbath Girl,” which was selected as a finalist by the Jewish Plays Project and produced last summer at Penguin Rep, also features Angie’s grandmother, Sophia, a romantic who keeps showing up and sharing advice; Seth’s sister Rachel, who also works at Konig’s Knishes and tries to keeps a close eye on her brother; and a brooding young artist named Blake, who is being wooed to Angie’s gallery.
Gitter’s own family background is a mix of cultures: He had Yiddish-speaking grandparents on his father’s side, and his mother’s family was Italian. His mother converted to Judaism, and she became the family member most involved in their Reform synagogue. Gitter grew up close to both sides of the family. He, wrote a play about his father’s parents true experience, “How My Grandparents Fell in Love” (which was presented as part of Ensemble Studio Theater’s Marathon of One-Act Plays in 2017 and aired on public radio the following year), and his Italian grandmother and great-aunts, as well as his Jewish grandmother, inform the lovingly blunt Sophia.
“You can work within a framework and make it your own and make it authentic, rather than a formula. I try to work against stereotypes and be really specific about the characters I’m writing about,” he says in an interview.
Growing up in Leonia, N.J., Gitter traveled to New York City often to see theater and films with his parents. In high school, he entered a tri-state playwriting competition and won, and his one-act play was presented by a professional director and actors. That experience, of seeing something he created on stage, with an audience, inspired him to pursue playwriting, and he went on to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for a BA in playwriting and an MA in English and American literature.
He has long admired another New Jersey writer, Philip Roth, who was a contemporary of his father’s, and also loves Nora Ephron’s sensibility and Joan Micklin Silver’s filmmaking. In fact, in “The Sabbath Girl,” there’s a nod to the pickle man in Micklin Silver’s “Crossing Delancey” — a film he calls “a Jewish New York romantic comedy touchstone.”
“My experience with plays has been that they really get perfected and improved once you’re working on them with real people, in a room of smart actors and directors. That’s when writing really happens. I wrote the first draft of this play in 2017, took it as far as I could,” he says. He then sent it to theaters, did a reading in director Joe Brancato’s home, then rewrote it, and it was produced last summer at Penguin Rep, the theater Brancato and others founded 40 years ago in an 1880s barn in the Hudson Valley town of Stony Point.
Gitter, 32, describes himself as a writer who has been influenced by Jewish culture, and finds a lot of “fascinating subject matter in Jewish characters and stories — there’s so much constant questioning, argument, discussion, that lends itself to plays and drama. And at this moment, with a resurgence of anti-Semitism, this play has gained a relevance I didn’t intend.
“With a few famous exceptions,” he continues, “I haven’t seen Orthodox characters in a play, depicted realistically. I feel good about having a piece like this on stage right now.”
About the theme of cross-cultural dating and intermarriage, he says, “The play is about people trying to connect across complex, difficult circumstances. I don’t know if I have an answer. I just want to dramatize the struggle, without taking a position on it.”
I was present at the first rehearsal for the Off-Broadway run, known as a table read, where the actors, director, playwright and other members of the production team sat around a table reading from scripts, marking them. The only prop was a pair of sunglasses, worn by the artist, even when he’s inside. The dialogue is smart, quick and funny.
Gitter has brought along a bag of knishes for all to share, along with mustard, as is the knish shop’s style. There’s a copy of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Sabbath” on the table, which Jeremy Rishe, who plays Seth, has been reading in preparing for the show. While he’s dressed informally at the reading, he wears a white shirt on stage.
Rishe, a Brooklynite who grew up in Utah, is the star of Cameron Bossert’s film “Jewtah,” which is based on his life. “Specificity of environment informs me a lot as an actor,” he says to explain his wandering around Riverdale, where Seth grew up, as well as the Upper West Side, where the play is set.
“I try to tap into the type of Jew Seth is, and where that intersects with who I am. I’m not rehearsing a trope of what a religious Jew from New York is supposed to be. I’m thinking, where do I live in this character? How do I bring Seth to life?”
Rishe, who played in the Folksbiene’s “The Megile of Itzik Manger,” describes his new character as Modern Orthodox, leaning a little toward Old World Orthodox.
“My daily life doesn’t reflect Seth’s, but I can connect to his deep connection to God. He seems to be someone who starts to bump up against tradition, although his belief in God and love of ritual and Torah is strong.”
The cast also features Angelina Fiordellisi as Sophia, Ty Molbak as Blake and Lauren Singerman as Rachel.
Brancato, the director, grew up, like Seth, in both Jewish and Italian cultures. He says that his father, who was not Jewish, was raised around Jews in Brooklyn and knew Yiddish — his family celebrated all holidays.
“I am drawn to stories that are relatable to me, that I can bring something out in, to reach beyond my experience,” he says in an interview.
“We need to remind the audience that we’re all in this together, regardless of our differences. It’s ultimately based on love.” He quotes a Talmudic line mentioned in the play, “Three things have a faint savor of the world to come: Sabbath, the sun, and love.”
“Love supersedes any rule. This is scandalous to some. The whole idea of assimilation is a debatable and personal choice. The play raises the issue in a gentle and magical way,” Brancato says.
“This leaves you with an uplift and hopefulness. I’d stand by that any day, given what we deal with in the real world, in our country.”
“The Sabbath Girl,” produced by Penguin Rep, opens Feb. 11 and runs through March 8 at 59E59, 59 E. 59th St. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.