The time is 1974, the place is NYC’s Lower East Side and the people are based on a true story of the Jewish family who own Bettinger’s Luggage, written by Albert M. Tapper, directed by Steven Ditmyer and playing at AMT Theater, 354 W 45 St, NYC now through October 26th. Passed down from son to son the store is a well-respected staple in the community, albeit fraught with father-son conflicts also passed down through the generations. Alongside that, the Bettinger’s staff and neighboring store owners add diversity, drama and local flavor while exposing the cracks in the American dream and the hopes that drive us.
“I wrote Bettinger’s Luggage because of how antisemitism is increasing in the United States,” says playwright Al Tapper, acknowledging it is probably greater now than at the end of the second World War. “And I wanted to write something that would show we’re all the same.”
It is a goal of AMT to make a difference in people’s lives. “I loved that the opening of our show coincided with the reopening of the Tenement Museum,” says AMT Artistic Director, Tony Sportiello, of the year-long restoration process that preserved the 160 year-old building on the Lower East Side. “The museum helps connect the past to the present. I was excited to do this show because of the importance to keep telling people’s stories.”
Tony and Al understand the value of connection, and so in a show about families who better than the talented husband and wife team of Director Steven Ditmyer and Prop Master/Technical Director Tamara Flannagan to work together on this project? SPLASH sat down with the creative duo to find out more about their experience.
SPLASH: What initially drew you to the piece?
TF: As soon as Tony and Al brought the play into the theater I sent it to my husband to see if he was interested in directing.
SD: I told Tamara yes right away.
TF: He read it in the morning and two hours later he was blocking the show in his head.
SD: Most new plays sent to me are what we call living room plays with a total of three or four actors. Playwrights want their work to be produced and in today’s climate this is helpful to keep the costs down. I was amazed at the first read of Bettinger’s Luggage to see 25 characters set in 1974 Delancey Street with three stores and a ton of interaction, it was like a breath of fresh air. It reminded me of the plays I worked on as a young actor over 30 years ago when a theatre company would come together to bring a story to life. This quality, along with the story and characters, made it a no-brainer.
SPLASH: So, after a long day at the theater, how did you take the work home? What’s it like to collaborate so intensely?
SD: Luckily, this wasn’t the first time Tamara and I collaborated on a theatre piece. I directed her years ago in the incredible one-person play The Syringa Tree. That was the first time we worked together as Director/Actor and we had a tough time at first. It took us a while to understand we needed to keep the Director/Actor relationship in rehearsals and the Husband/Wife relationship at home, and not cross-over with them. Once we did, things got better. Bettinger’s is a little different with Tamara being on the productions side of things at AMT.
TF: Yes, and this time I was going to collaborate with Steve on the creative team.
SD: Tamara’s the Technical Director of the theater as well as the Prop Master for the show. She does everything. Even puts up the entire set every week and takes it down.
TF: We knew it was going to be a massive undertaking and needed to get the best scenic design possible in our small space – with the added requirement that it could be disassembled and reassembled every week. I reached out to my old teacher, who had recently retired and asked if he’d be willing to take the job if I put him up for six weeks. He agreed, so when we got home at night, our work would continue between – Director, Set Designer and Props/Tech Director, though at a more relaxed pace. We would come up with ideas at dinner or wake up with new thoughts. It was really great. By the time we got to opening with this large show, exhaustion in my house was palpable. But it was a great, creative, and accomplished exhaustion.
SD: This time it was a new set of challenges to deal with together and, yes, it was definitely stressful at times. I think because we have been together for a long time – 33 years – we recognize and see when the stress is caused from outside the relationship, and we help each other to deal with it. I don’t know exactly how we do it but it seems to work.
SPLASH: Steve, what was the most surprising thing you learned about Tamara during this process?
SD: That’s a good question because I like to think I know everything about her. I already knew she was talented in so many things, but I will say she has even more patience and overall strength than I knew. I saw this working so closely with her knowing everything she faced over these last 7 weeks.
SPLASH: Tamara, was there something new you discovered about Steve?
TF: Steven has been teaching the Meisner technique internationally for over 12 years with his company, Meisner International. It was only this past year that I was able to watch one of his classes. I gained a whole new understanding of why they keep pulling him to Europe. His work is incredibly specific in teaching and directing. He works every moment as he moves through the play, leaving nothing unattended. It enables the actors to fly without fear or question. He is passionate for the work, and feeds that passion to others.
SPLASH: We heard you two celebrated a big anniversary? And on Opening Night! Tell us about that?
SD: Over the summer when we found out the show was a go, Tamara turned to me and said “Opening night is on our Anniversary!” and we both laughed saying, “Of course it is!” Then, being so busy with this big show, we literally forgot about it.
TF: Yeah, it was funny, I got a card in the mail three days before opening and thought, “What is this for?”
SD: So it was like a surprise, which was fun.
TF: Our younger son turned 15 the weekend before so our focus was making sure he had a good celebration day. We didn’t really think about it, but we did pull off an anniversary dance at the opening night party.
SPLASH: How is Bettinger’s Luggage personal to you?
TF: I am a huge fighter for justice. I take it personally if I see people treated unfairly, so I love this play because it’s about love of others. People experiencing love in different forms. Love for family, love for friends, love for neighbors. Injustice rears its ugly head and this play answers it with Love. Fear not those who cause you to open your eyes wider.
SD: At the heart of this play is a father and son story, and I think this is what touched me the most personally. I’m the oldest of 5 boys and my father was a banker and prominent businessman in South Florida for many years. And though we have been close now for many years, when I was in my young 20’s we had a difficult time understanding each other -just like Lou and George in the play. I think a lot of Father/Son relationships go through this. I believe it’s what touches the audience the most by the end of the story.
SPLASH: What is the takeaway message you’d like to see audience members leave with?
TF: That love of those that are different from us, those who don’t behave the way we want them to, is possible and ultimately transformative. We can look at someone and not like what we see, but if we open our heart, not just our eyes, we see the whole human being. Fear of others is a base emotion. Compassion and understanding are key.
SD: I completely agree. Even though we may have different points of view with a family member, friend or even someone we don’t know that well, if we lean on the side of love and not animosity, we can truly help each other and in doing so, help ourselves in the end.
Photo Credits: Jillian Nelson, AMT Theater, Tamara Flannagan
Bettinger’s Luggage (through October 26, 2023)
AMT Theater, 354 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For Tickets, call 917-388-2530 or visit http://www.AMTTheater.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission