From Leonia to just off Broadway — so far

From Leonia to just off Broadway — so far

Playwright Cary Gitter looks close to home for ‘The Sabbath Girl’

Max Wolkowitz is Seth and Lauren Singerman is his sister Rachel in “The Sabbath Girl: A New Musical.” (Dorice Arden Madronero)
Max Wolkowitz is Seth and Lauren Singerman is his sister Rachel in “The Sabbath Girl: A New Musical.” (Dorice Arden Madronero)

Cary Gitter admits he’s on the precipice, just thisfaraway from becoming a full-time playwright.

“I don’t have a full-time job,” he told me in a Zoom interview from his apartment in Brooklyn. “I still do freelance work. But [full-time playwriting] is becoming more and more possible. Most playwrights either teach or write for film and TV or have some other side gig, because unless you have a show on Broadway, you need one.

Mr. Gitter, 36, takes at least a figurative step in that direction on July 23, when his “The Sabbath Girl: A New Musical” opens for a six-week run at the 59E59 theater in Manhattan. That’s only six blocks from Broadway — and really not that far from Leonia, where he was raised in a Reform Jewish household. His mom, Virginia, was “Italian-American on her maternal side, so growing up I had a lot Italian Catholic relatives in Brooklyn and Staten Island I was very close to,” he said. “But she grew up without a strong religious upbringing. And I think just through my dad and his family and celebrating the holidays, she grew to enjoy Judaism and feel connected to it.

“I think the community aspect of it really appealed to her.”

Virginia Gitter converted when her son Cary was around 7 years old. “She’s very much a volunteer-doer type of person, and she ended up becoming president” of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, her son said. “She’d be there Friday nights, while my father was home watching the Yankees.”

Ah, yes, Dad. Sidney. “I think when he was younger he had some aspirations of writing, back in like the ’50s, when teleplays were a big deal on TV,” Mr. Gitter said. “He ended up getting into advertising and never pursued it, but still had a love of it.

Cary Gitter

“So he very much introduced me to that whole world. I grew up seeing a lot of plays, listening to recordings of a lot of old musicals, and watching a lot of old films.”

Mr. Gitter remembers the first Broadway show he saw. His father pulled him out of a first-grade class for front-row Wednesday matinee seats to see “Guys and Dolls,” starring Nathan Lane and Faith Prince.

He enjoyed the show, but it wasn’t necessarily the aha moment that determines a career path. “I loved reading, and I think when I was a little kid I would say I want to be a writer,” he said. “But for me at the time, I guess that meant writing stories or novels, because I didn’t quite connect the dots between writing and the plays and movies I saw.”

That changed in high school, when an English teacher gave him a flyer for a one-act play-writing competition and encouraged him to enter. He won, and his reward was a professional production as part of a theater festival in New York’s Westchester County.

“We rehearsed the play with a director and professional adult actors, and it went up at the festival. I think the experience was just so thrilling for me that I kind of caught the bug.”

His play had a surprisingly mature subject for a 16-year-old. “This was around 2003,” Mr. Gitter recalled. “There were all these kinds of corporate scandals like Enron. My play was about a mild-mannered accountant who got caught up in something like that and is on trial. He doesn’t feel he’s done anything wrong and is having this existential crisis. He played this small part in this big thing, and now he’s paying the consequences for it.

Seth talks to Angie in the new play. (Dorice Arden Madronero)

“I have no idea how that occurred to me.”

But much of Mr. Gitter’s post-college work — he earned a BFA in dramatic writing at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts in 2009 and a master’s in English and American literature at NYU’s Graduate School for the Arts & Sciences in 2011 — is more personal and often Jewish-themed. “How My Grandfather Fell in Love” tells the true story of how his grandpa, Charles, a Polish immigrant, returned to the Old Country to claim the bride he’d been promised before he left — only to fall in love and marry someone else, Eva Gitter.

“Menorah” is about a Jewish woman’s effort to get a menorah placed next to the town Christmas tree in River Hill, N.J. — a stand-in for Leonia. “After Dad” is about returning home for a shiva and dealing with grief and old friends.

There are several other plays with Jewish connections. Asked why, he said: “I like to think my connection is more of a cultural and creative connection, along the lines of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, or Saul Bellow. None of them were observant Jews in their own lives but they wrote constantly about Jewish characters and Jewish themes. I know I find a lot of fertile material there.”

The work of a playwright early into his or her career often is dependent on commissions from organizations dedicated to supporting young talent. That work often gets readings or workshops rather than full-scale productions. This pattern seemed to change for Mr. Gitter when he came to the notice of Joe Brancato, the artistic director of the Penguin Theater at Stony Point in Rockland County.

Mr. Brancato became a mentor to Mr. Gitter. He nurtured and directed most of the young playwright’s recent work. That began with an extremely successful production of “The Sabbath Girl,” a precursor of “The Sabbath Girl: A New Musical.” The play ran there in August 2019. A production at 59E59 followed in February 2020, just before the covid outbreak.

Maralyn Casarta is Angie and Diana DiMarzio is Nana in Cary Gitter’s play. (Dorice Arden Madronero)

Mr. Gitter, by now named playwright in residence at the Penguin — “They’ve had a show of mine every season since the first one,” he said — and Mr. Brancato continued to work together. The first collaboration, a musical Mr. Brancato conceived and directed based on a Henry Fielding novel, debuted August 2022. That was followed by “Gene and Gilda,” a bio-play Mr. Brancato directed at the Penguin the following August and then again in December, and coming to George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick this December 3-22.

Now it’s the “Sabbath Girl” musical’s turn. Like its predecessor, it’s a meet-cute romcom. It’s about Seth, a divorced 32-year-old who runs a knish store on the Lower East Side. He remains Orthodox though he’s left his stricter community.

Seth had relied on a next-door neighbor to help with Shabbos tasks, such as turning on the air conditioner on a sweltering Saturday. But then the tenant moves, and Seth is surprised to find Angie. And can you find love next door? No spoiler alerts here, but it’s all complicated by his more observant sister, her nana, and a former boyfriend, Blake.

Referring to his mom and dad, Mr. Gitter concedes “I did have the script for an intimate interfaith relationship.”

Turning it into a musical was largely propelled by Mr. Brancato, who paired Mr. Gitter with Neil Berg, who liked the idea.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gitter’s Penguin streak remains intact, with another Jewish-themed play coming in the fall. Called “The Steel Man,” it tells the story of an aspiring actor trying to escape the shadow of his larger-than-life father, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor.

Tickets for Sabbath Girl are available at and start at $27 for early showings and range from $66 to $86 during the run of the show.

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