When you're walking into a St. Paul community center holding a ticket printed with what sounds like the name of a picture book for beginning readers, you're probably not expecting to see the most genuinely erotic show of the season. Natasha and the Coat will surprise you, though, just as the eponymous fashionista surprises Yossi when she walks into his family's dry cleaners.
The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, on their home stage in the Highland Park Community Center, are presenting the world premiere of Deborah Stein's play about a halting romance between two young adults in Brooklyn circa 2005. While parts of her story are a stretch, Stein succeeds at holding a captivating tension around the slow-burning relationship between an unlikely couple.
Yossi (Avi Aharoni) and his family are Hasidic Jews, focused on serving fellow members of their conservative community. Natasha (Miriam Schwartz) takes an internship at a high-end vintage shop down the street, and rents an upstairs room from Yossi's family. When she accidentally spills coffee on an expensive fur coat, she becomes a regular customer as well: She's forced to get dozens of items cleaned on her own dime after shop owner Felicity (Kim Kivens) realizes Natasha lied about what happened to the coat.
The business with Felicity, a cartoonishly bad boss whose blackmail scheme relies on the weirdly extended fiction of Natasha rejuvenating the coats solely with her skin's "youthful oils," is the show's glaring weak spot. Fortunately, Stein and director Miriam Monasch fare far better with their other characters. That includes Muriel Bonertz and Charles Numrich as Yossi's parents, written and portrayed with a nuance and integrity that goes far beyond the simplistic disapproving-elder archetype it would have been easy to fall into.
The play's beating heart, and pulsing loins, come from the languorous flirtation that develops during exchanges the young pair share over the shop counter. The theater's small size allows both actors to keep the volume low and their movements slow as they creep along a deliciously slippery slope. Yossi isn't even supposed to be alone with Natasha, so when they get close, electricity crackles without the two even having to touch.
Both actors are exceptional. Aharoni is true to his sheltered character, but finds a confident good humor that makes us believe Natasha's attraction is genuine. That creates a space for Schwartz to deliver an incredibly compelling performance that's all the more impressive because hers is not a showy role: watch how she finds variety and depth in even the most routine line readings. The subtlety of the duo's interactions lends this production a fascination that could easily crumble away in a less nuanced staging.
Allusions to generation and gentrification help establish the setting, but Stein's decision to virtually ignore any personal relationships beyond those we see on stage (an omission that's particularly noticeable because of the urban setting, with constant references to community and society writ large) makes this fundamentally a hothouse drama about an achingly forbidden liaison.
Fittingly staged at an athletic facility, you might need a cold shower afterwards.
IF YOU GO:
Natasha and the Coat
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Through May 13
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