Danny Aiello tells Alma Cuervo he can’t fix her shoes in ‘The Shoemaker.’ Photo by Ben Hider.
The first act of Susan Charlotte’s “The Shoemaker,” directed by Anthony Marsellis and playing through August 14 at Theater Row’s Acorn Theater, wastes no time in establishing the symbolic level on which it will operate. The lights are barely up when Giuseppe, an Italian-American cobbler, finds himself barged in upon by a Columbia film professor with (ahem) a “broken sole.” Although the cobbler (Danny Aiello) insists that his shop is closed, the woman is persistent, and the two argue, eventually sharing stories of traumas past and present.
It is the afternoon of September 11, 2001. The woman has witnessed the tragedy of that morning, and her memory of it has become entwined with the thought of a film she had intended to show, Vittorio de Sica’s “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” This permits an uncomfortable segue by the shoemaker into the story of his father’s death in the Holocaust. Meanwhile, a pair of heels wait for a customer — an investment banker called “teeny Louise” — who, it is assumed, will never return for them. On the wall, a framed photograph of the pile of shoes at the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum provides extra dramatic heft — if only it did not have to be pointed out so frequently.
Throughout the play, 9/11 looms in the background, popping up here and there to lend gravity to a situation that is, on its face, not terribly remarkable, let alone worthy of an hour and a half of theater. On the almost platonically dingy set (the New York City cobbler shop in idealized form, smattered with American flags), the two actors circle each other, uncertain both how to feel and what to do as they try to make sense of what has happened. In their fumbling toward understanding there is at least something approaching truth.
Aiello, working the play like a one-man show, does well with this material. His cobbler — like his shop a paragon of gruff, working class New York —swings from weariness to grief to anger to a kind of infantilized desperation as he looses faith in the America he used to trust. What little lemonade is made of the play is largely his production.
This is where Charlotte’s original one-act play “The Shoemaker,” and her short film “A Broken Sole,” concluded. It is a shame she did not leave it at that. The flawed yet taut exchange of the first act dissipates completely in the new second one, as the script wheels back and forth in time to try and add more drama to a situation that doesn’t need it. While the first act suffers from a reliance on heavy-handed symbolism (pairs of shoes and twin towers, heels and height, broken soles), the second act bludgeons you with an overwrought dramatic flair.
A flashback, itself comprising a series of other flashbacks (as indicated by the offstage voice of the shoemaker’s dead father), allows teeny Louise to return to the shop, undoing her more interesting absence. Because there is no reason for her to be there, she is allowed to ascribe her presence to an instruction received in a dream. She leaves, and further off-stage voices create cheap associations between her childhood diving lessons and her possible leap from the tower. Throughout, the voice of Giuseppe’s father provides commentary and instruction, along the lines of “you can turn your radio on now.” A member of the audience was heard to emit an audible: “huh?”
The second act emphasizes the old shoemaker’s Jewishness — as well as, irrelevantly, Louise’s — and leans on the trauma Giuseppe suffers from being brought to the United States from Italy at the age of 9 while his father and grandmother remained in Europe, awaiting death. This tragedy, not to be belittled but surely unrelated to the events of 9/11, suffers for its insertion into the plot. It is clear enough that Charlotte intended for Giuseppe to be reliving these emotions because of the stresses of the day (or his empathy for Louise), yet one cannot help but feel that she is merely gathering together as many disasters as she is able in order to inject emotional crises into her plot. The two tragedies do not cohere, and their conjunction feels unnecessary, and even a shade disrespectful.
“The Shoemaker,” if nothing else, seems made for a post-show discussion — the cheap emotionalism and laborious metaphors protrude from its script like the book club questions tacked onto bestselling novels — and one indeed follows. This is not, perhaps, surprising. Cause Célèbre, the non-profit theater company behind the play (of which Charlotte is the head), describes its mission as “fostering an enhanced understanding of psychological, physical, and social issues through drama.”
It is a worthy undertaking — though here the issues seem to have eclipsed the play, if not “drama” in the sense of dramatics. It is a shame Marsellis and Charlotte don’t trust their audience enough to believe that we can recognize the issue — that is, the way tragedy impregnates every object and article with metaphoric significance — without having it beat into our heads with the “sole” of a shoe.