Theater review: 'Natasha and the Coat' crackles with sexual tension

Friday, April 27, 2018 by Jay Gabler in Arts & Leisure

 Avi Aharoni as Yossi and Miriam Schwartz as Natasha. Image courtesy Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Avi Aharoni as Yossi and Miriam Schwartz as Natasha. Image courtesy Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

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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Boy-meets-girl gets a sweet twist in Minnesota Jewish Theatre premiere


REVIEW: Hasid meets girl in the charming new play "Natasha and the Coat."
By LISA BROCK Special to the Star Tribune
APRIL 24, 2018 — 9:41AM

 Provided Kim Kivens as Felicity and Miriam Schwartz as her intern, Natasha, in Natasha and the Coat by Deborah Stein, April 21-May 13 at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. 

Provided Kim Kivens as Felicity and Miriam Schwartz as her intern, Natasha, in Natasha and the Coat by Deborah Stein, April 21-May 13 at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. 

“Sometimes the very old tales are the very most true ones,” elderly Jewish dry-cleaner Mordy confides to the audience at the beginning of “Natasha and the Coat.”

It’s an apt introduction for that oldest of stories — boy meets girl — in a show getting its world premiere at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company through May 13. Playwright Deborah Stein takes a pair of mismatched lovers and sets them smack dab in the middle of the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Natasha (Miriam Schwartz) is new to the neighborhood, having just graduated from college and landed a coveted internship with a vintage clothing
wholesaler. Yossi (Avi Aharoni) has spent his entire life there, working in his family’s dry-cleaning business. With his traditional black suit, side curls and ritual fringes, he seems to come not just from a different world from Natasha but a different century.

When Natasha spills coffee on a valuable coat, she asks Yossi to clean it before her boss can find out. His job transforms the garment, leading her to bring him more and more work. The two forge an unlikely romance, while Yossi’s parents look on with disapproval and Natasha’s boss grows increasingly suspicious.

Stein’s strong characterizations and humorous dialogue overcome some unlikely plot devices, while director Miriam Monasch and a capable cast lend warmth to this sweetly funny tale. Michael Hoover’s set ably accommodates scenes that shift regularly between the dry-cleaning shop and the clothing “atelier.”

Liz Josheff Busa’s props and Lisa Conley’s costumes add color, context and some stunning vintage dresses to the mix. Much of the play’s energy derives from the study in contrasts between Natasha and Yossi. Schwartz embodies the brash confidence and flighty, nervous energy of a young woman giddily poised to jump into the adventure of adulthood. Yossi, on the other hand, wavers between worlds. Aharoni beautifully conveys this tension in a scene in which Yossi trades his suit for jeans and a T-shirt, admiring himself in a mirror with shy wonder.

The other three cast members offer solid support. Kim Kivens is delightfully nasty as Natasha’s steelyeyed and egotistical boss, positively quivering with disdain and ever ready with an acid remark or a cold stare. Muriel Bonertz is equally intimidating as Yossi’s mother, a woman determined to stand as a bulwark against change, while Charles Numrich’s Mordy provides a softening influence as Yossi’s father, firm in his faith but tormented by his son’s dilemma.

Overall, this production’s strong acting and warmhearted charm open up an unfamiliar world while providing a unique twist on a very old story. 

Natasha and the Coat
Who: By Deborah Stein. Directed by Miriam Monasch. Produced by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends May 13.
Tickets: $23-$38. 651-647-4315 or

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.

Original Source:

Star Tribune, Lisa Brock, MJTC, Minnesota Jewish Theatre, Minnesota Jewish Theater, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Miriam Schwartz, Natasha and the Coat, Deborah Stein, Avi Aharoni, Kim Kivens, Muriel Bonertz, Charles Numrich, Miriam Monasch, Liz Josheff Busa, Michael Hoover, Lisa Conley

See this before it’s gone: 'Collected Stories' at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company


By Pamela Espeland | 03/13/18

MJTC Collected Stories-045.jpg

Maggie Bearmon Pistner, left, and Ashley Rose Montondo in a scene from “Collected Stories.” Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Donald Margulies’ play is 22 years old, but it could have been written yesterday. The questions it raises – about authenticity, identity, cultural appropriation, and if it’s ever OK for one person to steal another’s story – are ones we’re asking today, with more heat.

In “Collected Stories,” now at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Maggie Bearmon Pistner and Ashley Rose Montondo turn in strong, layered performances as Ruth Steiner, a successful Jewish author, and Lisa Morrison, her klutzy but gifted protégé. Our first clue that Lisa sees Ruth as more than a mentor comes when Lisa says, “You were lucky. You had all that rich, wonderful Jewish stuff to draw on. … What do I have? WASP culture. Which is no culture at all.” To which Ruth replies, in one of many acid zingers, “Oh, really? Tell that to Cheever and Updike.”

Ruth’s stories are more interesting to Lisa than her own. Why not use them? And don’t bother running that idea by Ruth. After all, Ruth is always saying, “Don’t tell me about it, write it. … Telling takes away the need to write. It relieves the pressure.”  

The play is all conversation between the two women. Over time, their relationship shifts. Lisa becomes Ruth’s assistant; they are teacher-student, employer-employee, mother-daughter, friends, rivals. In what she assumes is a conf­­­­­­­­­­­idential moment, Ruth shares the story of her long-ago affair with poet Delmore Schwartz (a real person; we occasionally hear his voice and some of his poetry). Then Lisa bases her first novel on Ruth’s life.

The setting is Ruth’s sixth-floor Greenwich Village apartment. Filling it with books, art, a messy writer’s desk and comfortable chairs, scenic designer Michael Hoover makes it so inviting you don’t mind spending the evening there. It’s also thoroughly convincing. In the play’s first few moments, as Ruth struggles to open a sticky window, she leans out the opening and some audience members gasp. We’re already believing she’s high above the ground.

See this if 1) you enjoy plays about writers/artists, 2) you like smart, talky plays, 3) you want to explore the topic of appropriation, 4) you’ve wondered about Montondo. She made the news in 2013 when she stepped into the lead role of Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” at the Guthrie, after Erin Krakow backed out for a TV series the day before rehearsals were set to begin.

Four performances remain: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 1. FMI and tickets ($23-38); 651-647-4315.


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Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's 'Collected Stories' takes sharp look at writerly theft


REVIEW: Sharp Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production bursts with ideas about art and appropriation. 

By LISA BROCK Special to the Star Tribune
February 27, 2018 — 11:24am

MJTC Collected Stories 1 (medium size).jpg

“Collected Stories” at Minnesota Jewish Theater stars Maggie Bearmon Pistner and Ashley Rose Montondo. Photo by Sarah Whiting. 

If a writer tells another person’s story, is it an honor or an appropriation? That question lies at the heart of Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” currently receiving a sharp and compelling production by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Margulies’ two-hander, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1997, charts the relationship of two women over the course of several years. Ruth (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) is an established writer and professor, confident, imperious and impatient. Lisa (Ashley Rose Montondo) is a student in her writing class, gawky, voluble and insecure. Despite some initial reservations, the prickly Ruth recognizes Lisa’s budding talent and agrees to serve as her mentor.

As their relationship deepens over six scenes, we see various emotional permutations build between mentor and mentee. At times they seem almost like mother and daughter, drinking lemonade on the balcony or squabbling over mislaid paperwork. At other moments, hints of rivalry emerge, as Lisa resists Ruth’s attempts to guide her course and pupil begins to surpass teacher.

During one of these scenes, Ruth reveals her deepest secret to Lisa — a youthful affair with poet Delmore Schwartz. She’s devastated when Lisa later uses that relationship as the story line of her first novel. Lisa tearfully claims that she intended the act as a gift, not a theft. Ruth, on the other hand, characterizes Lisa’s novel as not just emotional but also cultural appropriation, substituting what Lisa perceives as Ruth’s richer Jewish heritage for her own WASPy suburban background.

Director Jennie Ward offers a nicely paced production that wisely allows her two strong actors all the time they need to develop the nuance and complexity of these characters. Pistner delivers a razor-sharp, often blistering performance as Ruth. It’s a delight to watch her initial haughty, tightly controlled and world-weary attitude toward her awkward and effusive student soften almost reluctantly into friendship. At one point in the second scene, after deliberately wounding Lisa’s feelings, we see her stiffly wordless yet eloquent sense of regret as she stands in the darkness and steels herself to mend fences.


In contrast, Montondo’s Lisa is a whirlwind of ebullient and unrestrained emotion. She’s the bull in the china shop of Ruth’s cozy, book-filled Greenwich Village apartment (beautifully evoked by set designer Michael Hoover), spilling tea cups and tears in equal measure. Montondo skillfully details her character’s slow yet inevitable progression out of Ruth’s orbit as she absorbs the older woman’s life lessons.

What: Collected Stories
Who: Written by Donald Margulies. Directed by Jennie Ward. Produced by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu.; 8 p.m. Sat.; 1 p.m. Sun. Ends March 18.
Tickets: $23-$38, 651-647-4315 or

This solid production, with its two masterfully executed character studies, powerfully communicates both the intellectual conundrum that “Collected Stories” presents and the emotional maelstrom that underlies it.

Lisa Brock is a local freelance critic.


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