“To make a proper suit, the tailor needs to have a glimpse of the man inside,” says Alfredo, one of the characters in Michael Tucker’s two-actor play “A Tailor Near Me,” currently having its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, with direction by James Glossman. I doubt that that is really true: I assume most tailors could do just fine with a set of measurements. But this poetic sentiment is at the heart of Tucker’s sweet, unassuming play. (Aug. 14 Update: The play has been extended through Sept. 3.)
The play’s three scenes take place over the course of about five weeks in the tailor shop owned by Alfredo (played by James Pickens Jr.) and located in a Manhattan basement. Scenic designer Jessica Parks makes it look wonderfully authentic — just like the kind of space an old-school tailor like Alfredo would work in — though perhaps she goes a tad too far by including a rotary wall phone (the play is set in the present or the recent past) and a cash register that looks like it was made in the 1920s.
Anyway, one day Sam (played by Richard Kind), a middle-aged writer who has achieved little commercial success as a novelist but lots of it as a TV script writer, asks for alterations on a suit that he may soon need for a funeral. Sam, whose profession rarely calls for him to dress up (“Half the time, I don’t even wear pants,” he says), has put on some weight, and his 25-year-old suit is going to need some major work. Alfredo says he has three options: to leave the jacket unbuttoned, “or you buy a whole new suit, or you eat less lasagna.”
Sam says he’s doesn’t want to buy a new suit right now because he is going to Italy soon and will have a new, custom suit made for him there. Alfredo says he can do it himself, at a more reasonable price. “This way you don’t have to go all the way to Italy and eat more lasagna,” he says. Sam agrees.
It is a complicated process to make this bespoke suit — as Alfredo calls it — with lots of measuring and fittings. And as Alfredo works, he and Sam talk: Sam (like most writers, perhaps) is quite happy to talk about himself. They talk about Sam’s friend whose death is imminent, and who had a big influence on the course of Sam’s life. They talk about their work, and their wives, and so on. (I wish Tucker had not conveniently made Alfredo an expert on Sam’s novels, though: It seems extremely unlikely that he would be, given that we’re told that most of them haven’t sold well.)
Alfredo, who is fairly stoic, draws Sam out; it’s hard not to think of these sessions as a form of psychotherapy, with Alfredo sometimes functioning as a blank slate, and sometimes offering words of wisdom.
It’s just what two people do when they find themselves spending a lot of time together. (Alfredo’s shop is untouched by any other customer traffic). But it’s also part of the wise Alfredo’s tailoring process — remember that “glimpse of the man inside” thing — though Sam doesn’t initially think of it that way.
And that’s all this play is, really: A series of conversations in which these two men go deeper, and share more, and build a bond. We also do see the suit Alfredo makes, in the final scene. And yes, it’s pretty impressive.
Old pros Kind and Pickens are excellent as odd couple Sam and Alfredo (and I don’t use that phrase lightly; there is definitely a Felix-and-Oscar dynamic when the somewhat formal, slightly prickly, reserved Alfredo interacts with the talkative, excitable Sam). In one of the play’s best scenes, Sam masterfully tells a long, hilarious joke about a tailor — a joke that he remembered telling at a turning point in his life, decades ago — and Alfredo stares, stone-faced. He doesn’t get Sam’s earthy humor, at all.
Tucker — best known as an actor in “L.A. Law” and many other TV shows, films and plays — has previously written two other full-length plays, both of which premiered at NJ Rep: “The M Spot” (2015) and “Fern Hill” (2018). Marriage was a big theme in those plays, and it plays a major role here, too. Alfredo may not like talking about himself, but when he talks about his wife, he lets his guard down a bit.
“A Tailor Near Me” is poignant at times, amusing at others, but never really a powerful theatrical experience. I wish Tucker had figured out a way to create a little more drama. Yes, it’s somewhat interesting to hear these men talk, and see them grow a little. The play’s 90 minutes go by quickly. But nothing major is really at stake — the insights Sam gains seem far from life-changing, and Alfredo doesn’t seem to be in need of any more insight — and I think that keeps “A Tailor Near Me” from becoming not just entertaining, but truly compelling.
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch presents “A Tailor Near Me” through Sept. 3; visit njrep.org.
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