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Clothes Help Make the Playwright a Success

March 30, 2006
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Lynn Nottage is quite the designing woman.

For up there, on stage, is the tapestry of her talent, a take on humanity that is a quiltwork on black/Jewish relations as much as it is a civil look at strides in civil rights.

Nottage is on intimate terms with the threadlines of "Intimate Apparel": It is all based on the playwright's family history, a genealogy dating to the not such genial times of the early 1900s, when her great-grandmother, Ethel Boyce, a seamstress of women's undergarments, fashioned a life for herself - and a romance with a Barbadian émigré - in New York, all abetted by her genuinely genial Jewish boss at work.

Nottage's high-wattage of a daring drama is now staged by the Philadelphia Theater Company at Plays & Players Theater in Center City through April 16.

With its applique of applause-worthy performance history, "Intimate Apparel" tugs at the tulle fabric that has covered so much of race/ethnic relations through the relationships of Ethel and her boss, whose character description is that of "an observant, Orthodox Jewish fabric-shop owner, business associate and friend of Esther."

Cottoning to each other as friends - the fabric of their lives? "I was trying to imagine a relationship that would take place at that time on the Lower East Side," says Nottage.

And this good yarn of a play wasn't a stretch from her own ethnic understandings, says Nottage, whose "husband is Jewish, of Rumanian descent, although his family came much later to this country than the time described in the play."

What "Intimate Apparel" leaves as a lingering legacy is not its lingerie landscape, but its lessons on human interaction. "What surprises me is how fluid the communication was between the races at that time," says the playwright.

Taking this amble through history is a natural for the playwright whose "A Walk Through Time" and "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" have had her feasting on rave reviews that come with critical acclaim.

Clothes make the playwright a success? Who knew that one could craft a play that sings of the soul through its Singer sewing machine? But the pattern the playwright proffers is more than skin deep - and socially seductive.

"These are two individuals who are marginalized by culture," notes Nottage of the seamstress and her boss. "And they both find a community in fabric - a very tactile relationship."

This is not a one-size fits all endeavor; audience members have individual takes on what the play signifies. After all, outside the stage parameters, Ethel and Mr. Marks wouldn't be, in Lower East Side language, kutsinyu-mitzenyu, "buddy-buddy," beyond the fabric shop.

Sharing laughs over lattes at Central Perk? Friends, but no "Friends."

"Outside the story, no," concedes Nottage, "they wouldn't occupy the same social status."

But that was then - and, now? "Esther would be very different today," says the writer, "very entrepreneurial. She would have gotten a good education - and Mr. Marks would not have to operate out of his bedroom."

There's room for a message here, but Nottage is not one to deliver it in broad stitches.

"I don't intend to be didactic," she says.

But "Intimate Apparel" is no mere period piece, costumed in cryptics of the past. A stitch in time? Timeless; there is indeed much to observe about modern-day dynamics.

If Esther and Mr. Marks forged a friendship today - even with all the civil wrongs of the past ceding to civil rights - "it would still be a very complicated relationship," says Nottage, but one, 100 hundred years after the play is set, that would still measure up.

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