A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx

A Tomato Can't Grow in the Bronx at the Chain Theater
A Tomato Can't Grow in the Bronx at the Chain Theater
Rating
4.6/5

As we arrive and assemble for A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx, music of the late 60s drifts through the house. We hear portentous selections from the era, like the theme from the Broadway musical Hair (1967) and the song Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds (1965).

We are in the Bronx in June 1968 during a time of social upheaval, transition, and strife in America. A year earlier, racial tensions sparked violent conflagrations in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Harlem, Detroit, and in both Plainfield and Newark, New Jersey. Three months earlier, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennesee. U. S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination followed on June 6 in Los Angeles. The Vietnam War was raging, and anti-war students demonstrated nationwide.

Andrea Bell Wolff and Jackie Kusher Photo credit: Mafalda Cavanaugh
Andrea Bell Wolff and Jackie Kusher. Photo credit: Neil Chan

Three generations of a loving Jewish family live next door in adjoining Bronx apartments. Their neighborhood had been the destination for many European immigrants for decades and, most recently, was experiencing a socially propelled migration to the suburbs. The family dynamics of the Abrams children, grandchildren, and Simms grandparents are enveloped by a change in social mores tempered by their desire to cohabit in their safe space. Many baby boomers immediately sympathize and recall the security of old city neighborhoods delineated by culture, religion, language, and international origins. But aside from the physical proximity and perception of the safety of their homes, why haven’t they moved to Long Island like others?

Spencer Newman and Andrea Bell Wolff Photo credit: Mafalda Cavanaugh
Spencer Neumann and Andrea Bell Wolff. Photo credit: Neil Chan

The action begins with the family converging to address the recent mugging of 15-year-old grandson Elliot Abrams (Spencer Neumann), who is nursing his bleeding forehead. The family kvetches about the cause of Elliot’s plight as they argue about his need for X-rays, avoiding Clay Avenue, patriarch and grandfather Harry Abrams’ (Jackie Kusher) contention that Jews “don’t run anymore,” and Grandma Gladys Simms’ (Andrea Bell Wolff) reference to the possibility of Elliot’s needing brain surgery as portrayed on the Ben Casey TV show.

Mike Roche and Holly O'Brien Photo credit: Mafalda Cavanaugh
Mike Roche and Holly O’Brien. Photo credit: Neil Chan

We can’t help but grow close to the family. They are lovable, vulnerable, and delightfully set in a time and place where three vital generations interact, protect each other, and build cherished memories. There are plenty of jokes as grandfather Simms oversees his coterie. Simms owns a paper-hanging business and always has money to solve the family’s problems; he doles out just enough business to keep his employee son-in-law Sammy Abrams (Mike Roche), financially intact. We discover that Sammy’s wife, Eleanor Abrams (Holly O’Brien), is emotionally fragile and vigorously protected by her father. But Eleanor and Sammy have their own dreams. As they vainly attempt to cultivate tomatoes on their Bronx balcony, they speak dreamily of a home with a real garden.

Enter the delightful, ambitious real estate agent Madeline Kramer (Marina Chan). In Act II, we are transported to house hunting on Long Island and wonder how the family might reconcile the geographical and emotional challenges of uprooting an extended family if the grandparents don’t tag along. Is heat included in the monthly mortgage payment? What are those tailed creatures with acorns climbing in the trees? Where are the subways? How does one cut the grass?

A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx is a heartfelt, sentimental look at old-world family dynamics that many of us saw weaken after the shifts from cities to suburbs accelerated in the late 60s. Special recognition is due to the inimitable Andrea Bell Wolff as grandmother Gladys Simms for her charm, warmth, humor, gravitas, and intensity when needed. And we all commiserated with the caring, patriarchal, complex, and sometimes flawed grandfather Harry Simms as portrayed by Jackie Kusher.

A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx

Written by Gary Morgenstein
Directed by Bernice Garfield-Szita

Cast In order of appearance
Elliot Abrams played by Spencer Neumann
Eleanor Abrams played by Holly O’Brien*
Harry Simms played by Jackie Kusher*
Gladys Simms played by Andrea Bell Wolff*
Sammy Abrams played by Mike Roche*
Madeline Kramer played by Marina Chan

Credits

Director – Bernice Garfield-Szita
Playwright – Gary Morgenstein
Producer – Tomato Players, LLC
Co-Stage Managers – Erica Jasinski, Michele Coppolino
Assistant Stage Managers – Mateo Del Campo, Alma Del Campo
Set Design – Bernice Garfield-Szita, Bob Szita
Set Construction & Painting – Kirk Tibbett
Costume Design – Bernice Garfield-Szita
Lighting & Sound Design – Rocky Noel
Lighting & Sound Technician – Kristen Vanderlyn*
Publicity – Kristen Vanderlyn*, Betsyann Fiaillo
Scotti Rhodes www.scottirhodespublicity.com, Mafalda Cavanaugh

*Actors’ Equity Approved Showcase

Runtime two hours with one intermission.

The Chain Theater

312 West 36 Street
Floor 3 & 4
New York, NY 10018

For tickets and information, go to info@chaintheatre.org or ChainTheater.org

Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Andrea Bell Wolff in Adventures in Vegas, Fastened to the Moon, The Haunting of 85 E4th Street, and Hedda Gabler.

 

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