“Embrace the past—it makes you who you are.”
That is the means, message, and moral of Esther’s Moustache, a light, quirky comedy deftly presented by the top-flight pros at New Jersey Repertory Company.
Embittered and unhappy Maddie Sternberg has shut herself off in her home studio, drawing a weekly comic strip of the escapades of her alter ego, ditzy sex goddess Lillith. Much like Ebenezer Scrooge, Maddie needs no one and nothing. But also like Scrooge, she is awakened, annoyed, and ultimately enlivened by a series of intrusive visitors who force her to engage with her past, her present, and her future.
Leading the charge is her grandma Esther, a compendium of stereotypic matriarchal behaviors and attitudes. As she unpacks her commodious trunk, Mary Poppins–style, everything from chairs to kreplachs emerge. Esther serenely commandeers Maddie’s cold, Mondrian-inspired artist’s studio, fashioning a homey little corner replete with Club Aluminum, family photos, doilies, and latkes. Maddie rails and rebels against the intrusion. As does Lillith, who occupies a sparsely decorated but cartoonishly colorful boxy curtained panel just behind Esther’s newly claimed territory. Blonde, beguiling, and beautiful, Lillith is not at all happy about this new visitor, and she pointedly consults a “Dummies” guidebook to get a handle on Esther’s strange customs and guttural language.
Gerd is another visitor. He is the unbelievably studly, handsome messenger who has taken on the task of picking up Maddie’s weekly strip and conveying her pay. Gerd is blue-eyed, blond—and German, which is decidedly off-putting to Esther. Angrily—and literally—Maddie embraces the innocent, worshipful Gerd, who skates into her arms—also literally.
These four highly appealing characters then mix it up, both in Maddie’s studio and Lillith’s dream world to wrestle with issues of identity, inclusion, and intervention. And because this is a comedy, everything comes out right in the end, just as it should.
Playwright Laurel Ollstein has given the cast pithy, wry dialogue that both quickly reveals character and gives the actors room to deepen their portrayals. For example, Maddie challenges Esther’s reminisces with a tart: “You left Poland when you were two months old. How could you walk to Russia?” only to be met by Esther’s witheringly matter-of-fact rejoinder: “You tell your stories. I’ll tell mine.” And the endearingly questing Gerd hopefully explains to Maddie that his family has no analogue for the colorful, vibrant Esther: “So, I’m taking your traditions; do you mind?”
The cast is warm and funny and vital. Jim Shankman plays Esther with no winks or nods to cross-dressing caricature, creating as believable a character as possible. Uma Incrocci is delicious as the insouciant Lillith, coy and playful and appropriately two-dimensional. Burt Grinstead’s Gerd is a pleasure, a friendly, honest hunk with a surprisingly open and active mind and heart. Gerd is in fact so appealing that his journey almost overshadows that of Catherine LeFrere, as Maddie moves from cold remoteness to warm acceptance.
Smart staging typifies a New Jersey Rep experience, and this play, directed cleanly and clearly by the playwright, is no exception. The small stage is used intelligently to show Maddie’s interactions in her real and dream worlds. And the colorful, witty, and imaginative costumes, sets, props, and projections of the design team—Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, Patricia E. Doherty, and Merek Royce Press—bring both worlds vividly to life.
I am not sure that the metaphor that lends the play its title is particularly apt or well-thought through. Nor am I convinced that all the characters are quite real or realistic. But the play as a whole is uplifting and exceedingly well done, and fittingly apropos to a post-hurricane holiday season of hope and renewal.