Shmatta and Schmaltz: Ilene Beckerman Hits Off-Broadway

Born in 1935, Ilene Beckerman, now a resident of Livingston, New Jersey, worked in the advertising industry, and published her first book at age 60, the bestselling “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” (Algonquin Books, 1995). Adorned with whimsical drawings of dresses worn by herself and family members over several decades, it displayed them as emblems of emotional milestones, whether of childhood, motherhood, or failed marriages. Deceptively light in tone, like the poignantly childlike drawings of the British poet Stevie Smith, Beckerman’s intense attachment to clothes is akin to the obsession with books as life’s landmarks expressed in another Jewish woman’s bittersweet memoir, Helene Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road” (Penguin, 1970).

Ever alert to dramatic potential, the sisters Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron adapted Beckerman’s work into an off-Broadway show by adding various clothes-related digressions, not all of them gripping, to the original candid, willfully naive narrative. The resulting play “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” opened on October 1 at New York’s Westside Theatre, where it will be performed by rotating casts of five actresses. Of the ensemble I saw recently, standouts were Rosie O’Donnell, seated with the monumental presence of Gertrude Stein although with admirable yoga posture, and the radiant Natasha Lyonne (born Natasha Braunstein to a New York Orthodox Jewish family). Lyonne, an alumna of the Upper East Side Modern Orthodox Ramaz School, conveyed genuine amusement at her fellow actors’ recitations, as well as charmingly felt monologues of her own, adding a touch of Beckerman’s domestic reality to the usual Ephron schmaltz, familiar from Hollywood films and humor books.

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