Arts

Review: Pacific Resident Theatre’s ‘The Bespoke Overcoat’ Offers a Poignant Glance at Human Needs

(L-R) Robert Lesser and Harry Herman in Pacific Resident Theatre's production of "The Bespoke Overcoat" in Venice, CA. Photo by James Morris

In the modern era, with its push-of-a-button conveniences, it’s easy to overlook the accessibility of bare necessities — from food, to shelter, and warm clothes. Despite wanting to remain humble, one may still naturally take certain things for granted. However, Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of The Bespoke Overcoat — directed by Marilyn Fox and Dana Jackson — reminds and puts into perspective how a mere coat can mean so much, becoming the focal point of its protagonist and Wolf Mankowitz’s script (inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story). With a talented cast of four, and a setting that truly harkens back to a simpler time, the play, notwithstanding a slower-than-desired pacing, has a profound message to tell over 70 minutes.

Harry Herman in Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of The Bespoke Overcoat in Venice, CA. Photo by James Morris

Playwright Mankowitz, renowned as an insightful and abundant writer in the mid-20th century, penned The Bespoke Overcoat before it became an Oscar-winning short film in 1957. The premise is rather quaint on the surface but, under the stitches, linings, and threads are messages about companionship, sympathy, and righteousness for particularly its two Jewish characters who are downtrodden by impoverished circumstances and a principled loyalty to a vocation that neither compensates appropriately nor treats them fairly.

In the Jewish East End of London, Morry, a resourceful tailor with a penchant for brandy, introduces the account of his beloved friend and weather-beaten colleague, Fender. The pair work — or worked — at a shabby men’s clothing warehouse. The only issue is that Fender, a shipping clerk of 43 years, has passed away due to an incursive cough seemingly caused by having to withstand freezing temperatures at his job. This segues into the reanimation of Fender, now an apparition, and a return to yesteryear when the audience learns of not only about his bottom-line boss, Mr. Ranting, but his plain wish to have a coat that keeps out the cold.

(L-R) Harry Herman and Robert Lesser in Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of The Bespoke Overcoat in Venice, CA. Photo by James Morris

Longtime actor Harry Herman portrays the modest Fender whose laugh and general positivity belies his meager possessions. Herman elicits empathy, but never to the extent that one feels sorry for his character who is prideful and enriched by a sense of integrity. More importantly, through Herman’s Fender, who holds a bagel in one hand like its filet mignon and fantasizes about a bowl of soup to complement it, attendees’ perspectives on gratitude are apt to shift. Fender’s struggle, representative of very real people, highlights how essential it is to reframe and examine one’s life in relativistic terms.

Robert Lesser depicts Morry, a resourceful and understanding tailor who turns down a request to overhaul Fender’s torn and tattered coat, instead agreeing to sew and hem a bespoke (custom) overcoat for a discounted 10 pounds. Morry is conveyed with practicality but also a substantial humanity; after all, he identifies with Fender’s financial scarcity and sacrifices. Morry is an advocate of Fender’s in a manner that goes beyond perfunctory virtue; that is, Morry completely validates Fender’s predicament and supports his wishes as a true compatriot. Lesser imbues his persona with personable qualities, meshing convincingly with Herman’s Fender for maximal effect.

(L-R) Bruce Nozick, Tobias Echeverria, and Robert Lesser in Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of The Bespoke Overcoat in Venice, CA. Photo by James Morris

Bruce Nozick, well-regarded for giving an underrated performance as William Fox in last year’s Fetch Clay, Make Man, is the hard-hearted proprietor of the warehouse, Mr. Ranting, who displays not one ounce of care nor concern when Fender voices his bodily discomfort of having to work in frosty conditions; in fact, the adversarial character pooh-poohs Fender’s inquisitiveness about desiring one of the many brand-new coats that are shipped from the facility and exhibits exasperation when his elderly employee has trouble hearing requisition orders. Nozick succeeds in making Ranting appropriately unlikeable and reminiscent of thoughtless supervisors without veering into an over-the-top presentation which less experienced actors might be tantalized by.

The fourth and final actor is Tobias Echeverria who renders the role of a young clerk whose aspiration of physical fitness bemuses Nozick’s Ranting. While his stage time is brief, Echeverria’s clerk provides a memorable contrast to Herman’s take on the same position.

(L-R) Robert Lesser and Harry Herman in Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of The Bespoke Overcoat in Venice, CA. Photo by James Morris

Needless to say, the behind-the-scenes personnel convey their artistry just as vividly as the performers. Rich Rose’s proletarian-evoking set, Doug Prazak’s muted-color props, and Audrey Eisner’s classic textiles comprising her costumes establish the play’s somber and unassuming moods at the outset. Certainly, the workstation, table, chair, bed, suit form mannequins, and racks of coats suggest this is where those of lower-middle class stature toil day and night for scant shillings. Leigh Allen’s intimate lighting captures its timeworn, but all the more respectable, main characters in Fender and Morry; and, Chris Moscatiello’s sound design underlies a pocket of the past, resonating with the aural spirit of hopefulness in the face of adversity.

(L-R) Tobias Echeverria and Bruce Nozick in Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of The Bespoke Overcoat in Venice, CA. Photo by James Morris

Directors Fox and Jackson have fashioned a piece that has several moving remarks to convey, although at barely over an hour, the play ironically moves along a little too unhurriedly, stymieing the momentum of certain scenes. Of course, it’s crucial for moments to breathe, but perspicacious observers may feel slightly restless at times. Truthfully, the play could have told its story in a length similar to the celebrated short film — 33 minutes. That said, it would be impossible to sell a play of that duration and protracting the story so it is doubled in length, as is the case here, presents reasonable challenges and should come with the expectation that it wouldn’t be infallible.

(L-R) Robert Lesser and Harry Herman in Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of The Bespoke Overcoat in Venice, CA. Photo by James Morris

Overall, Pacific Resident Theatre’s The Bespoke Overcoat, wrapped up in a fabric of straightforwardness and simplicity, is deserving of praise because it earns the dutiful recognition of its audience. Wolf Mankowitz’s statement on human needs is especially worthwhile today — perhaps more so than it has ever been. For instance, what may be a quotidian addition to one’s closet may be a required, albeit elusive, item for one who will use it not for an aesthetic purpose, but a functional one. The Bespoke Overcoat shifts and guides worldviews back down to earth in case they ever became out of touch with the common person.

Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of The Bespoke Overcoat runs through Sunday, April 14th. For showtimes and more information abut Wolf Mankowitz’s play, visit pacificresidenttheatre.org.

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