Marriage At Work: A Synopsis

(Dances are in italics)

Act I (1 hour, 26 minutes)

Scene 1: A Hasidic synagogue, Brooklyn

(late September, mid 1990s)

The play opens with projected scenes of New York waking up in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, at Columbia University, and in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn, accompanied by a musical overture.

At 37, REUVEN FINE (“fine”), a Jew of a strict Hasidic sect whose men wear only black and white, has not found a suitable wife. Nevertheless, during a post–Yom Kippur repast in his storefront synagogue, Reuven, his Hasidic friends SHIMON and CHAIM, and the other Hasidim (as dancers) affirm their steadfast allegiance to their Old World ways (Life On the Fringe).

But JOEL SPIRO—a secular Astronomy professor—urges Reuven to enroll in a new, eight-week evening course on marriage, to be taught at Columbia University by a controversial rabbi, JACOB BRAUER. Reuven’s friends object: Brauer is trouble and moral dangers lurk in the city, particularly at a university. But Reuven consents to enroll.

As all but Reuven leave, an unlit end of the stage is lit, revealing RACHEL SHOECK (“shek”), an attractive Jewish free spirit, arriving home to the kitchen of her Upper West Side apartment. Though proudly independent, thirty-something Rachel still longs to meet Mr. Right. She and Reuven unknowingly join in a duet to their Maker, affirming their trust that their chosen partners await them (Hineni! (Here I Am!)).

Scene 2: Jewish Student Union, Columbia University, Manhattan

(a Thursday evening, early October)

The next month finds Reuven and Rachel at the opening marriage class. Rabbi Brauer has hand-picked eight never-married men and eight never-married women, all in their thirties. Over their denials, he insists they have said “No” to marriage largely out of fear of losing themselves. Marriage, he explains in a give-and-take, is little different from work (Marriage Is Work).

To help the singles understand what a sound marriage requires, Brauer has devised a radical program, “Marriage At Work”: For eight weeks, each student will apply the principles of marriage to the person of the opposite sex with whom he or she most closely works. By the end of the course, the students will be ready to say “Yes” to marriage. Though skeptical, the 16 singles agree, in song and dance, to give the program their all (Eight Weeks).

Scene 3: The synagogue

(that Friday night)

Shimon is aghast at the dangers to which Reuven has consented to expose himself. In a whirling song-and-dance duel (The Rebbe Says), Joel and several of his graduate students challenge the Hasidim’s blind allegiance to their chief rabbi (the Rebbe) while Shimon and the ensemble Hasidim challenge the secularists’ reliance on free choice.

Scene 4: Rachel’s office, Manhattan

(Monday morning, Week 1, October)

As chance would have it, the following Monday Reuven, a contract editor/writer, reports to a new eight-week assignment at the office of a small graphic-arts company owned, he discovers, by Rachel. Though awkwardly paired and mutually testy, the two resolve to complete their “homework” together. But their “marriage,” Rachel cautions, must not be discovered by her cynical photographer, BURT. Nor must Rabbi Brauer or their classmates learn of their on-the-job partnership.

Scene 5: Jewish Student Union

(Thursday evening, Week 1, October)

At the second class, Rabbi Brauer introduces the singles to the Biblical ideal of “a partner who opposes”: Husband and wife should not be identical, but complementary—indeed, sometimes at odds. The rabbi asks the singles to ratify this precept with examples. They reply with a rambunctious patter song and kick line (Someone Just Like Me).

Scene 6: The office

(Week 3, late October)

Rachel and Reuven continue to clash in their views and lifestyles. When Rachel leaves, Burt drops in, mocking the Hasid’s naïveté while revealing his own cynical view of marriage. When Burt departs, a visit by an attractive Orthodox woman tests Reuven’s commitment to his “marriage.” Returning to the office, Rachel invites Reuven to venture out from his religious strictures into a world of choices (A World of Many Colors, reprising the melody of “Eight Weeks”).

Scene 7: The synagogue

(Friday evening, Week 3, late October)

That Friday evening, Reuven shows up for Sabbath services decked out in colorful clothes. Seeing how Reuven now dresses and having been briefed on his friend’s unorthodox situation at work, Shimon fears for Reuven’s moral safety.

Scene 8: Jewish Student Union

(Thursday, Week 4, early November)

As the fifth class ends, the women stay, straightening up and comparing notes on their “marriages.” In song and dance, they marvel how, in response to their becoming better “wives,” their unwitting partners have become better “husbands” (Marriage At Work).

Act II (1 hour, 16 minutes)

Scene 1: The office

(Week 6, mid or late November)

After an orchestral prelude bridging the two acts,

Rachel enters the office to discover a careless mess left by Reuven. Frustrated, she soliloquizes her “marital” plaints (Marriage Is Work—II).

When Reuven arrives, Rachel slips in and out of his way, being alternately irritating and endearing, as he soliloquizes his ambivalence toward married life (When I Was One).

Rachel fishes for a compliment on her looks. Reuven, however, does not take the bait. Peeved but undaunted, she challenges him to kiss her. Constrained by religious strictures and interrupted by Burt, he again fails to act. He exits.

With Rachel and Reuven away, a jealous Burt finds a dropped paper—Rachel’s homework assignment. His discovery reassures him that the couple’s growing intimacy has been nothing more than sterile homework—a conviction he gleefully expresses in a tango (Going Through the Motions).

Scene 2: The synagogue

(Saturday afternoon, Week 6, late November)

On Sabbath afternoon, Reuven arrives at synagogue to study. Thinking himself alone, he sings of how he would show his love if they were married (The Ways I Would Tell You).

Joel appears, and the scientist and the Hasid discuss truth, beauty, and choice.

Scene 3: Jewish Student Union

(Thursday evening, Week 7, late November)

Before the other students arrive for the eighth class, one student—ALISON—confronts the rabbi: He has raised her hopes for finding genuine love, but her budding romance with her workmate has abruptly ended. Rabbi Brauer reveals his own uneven experience with marriage. He urges her to heal by helping others believe in their capacity to grow (Pass It On).

In class, Brauer assigns the final homework: touching. Confiding after class to classmate WENDY, Rachel frets that her workmate is an untouchable Hasid. “No problem,” says the experienced Wendy. Grabbing a hapless Reuven as a prop and enlisting Rachel, she shows her, in a risqué Latin dance, how to seduce a Hasid (The Sin’s On Me).

Scene 4: The office

(Wednesday, Week 8, early December)

Monday through Wednesday, Reuven is so angry at the two women’s classroom stunt that he scarcely speaks to Rachel. But when a job setback finds Rachel in tears, Reuven rises to the moment: He holds her tenderly and speaks the endearments she needs to hear. She exits, reassured and content. With Rachel away, Burt confronts Reuven with the homework paper and belittles the Hasid’s partnership with Rachel as something unreal. Driven by jealousy, Burt goes on to make a startling revelation. Shattered, Reuven packs his belongings and leaves, to return neither to the office (for the final two days) nor to class. Rachel returns, learns what Burt has done, and fires him.

Scene 5: The office

(later that night)

After midnight, alone at the office, Rachel strives to complete her crucial project without Reuven. Bewitched by unseen music, she feels attended by a mysterious presence (Something Strange). As Reuven’s ghostly image appears and (unseen by her) joins her in a ballet, she realizes how much he—and marriage—mean to her.

Scene 6: Jewish Student Union

(Thursday evening, Week 8, early December)

The following night, at the final class, Rabbi Brauer arrives late, looking weary. He congratulates the students for completing the course, then informs them that the controversial course may not be renewed. After cautioning them that intimacy brings misunderstandings, he distributes evaluation forms, then leaves. Moments later, one of the students rushes in and shares some shattering news: The good rabbi has been charged with sexual harassment! Feeling used and betrayed, the students prepare to mete out revenge through their evaluations. But as they answer the questions on the form, they realize they are no longer afraid to marry. Though starting late, they are ready to trade make-believe marriages for lifetime commitments (Forty Days, Forty Years).

Scene 7: The synagogue

(Friday evening, mid December)

Eight days later, as the synagogue’s Hanukkah candles dwindle, a forlorn Reuven pines for the weeks he spent with Rachel in her colorful, choice-filled world. Shimon and Chaim start to console him, but Joel interrupts to show Reuven that color and free choice have been his all along (Eight Weeks / A World of Many Colors).

Rachel enters, accompanied by her seven female classmates, and asks Reuven to consider “a more permanent position.” Finally choosing for himself and defying Shimon’s objections, Reuven agrees to date Rachel to explore whether they should pursue marriage. As the play ends, the eight women pair off with the Hasidim and Joel in a waltz celebrating the imperfect state of marriage (Future Imperfect).