Esther is a single girl in the big city. She's in her mid-30s, with a boring job and a few female confidantes -- a harlot, a realist and a bohemian. (Esther herself is the prude.) She lives in an idyllic version of New York, where race barely matters, everyone wears cute outfits and looks freshly bathed, and women gossip candidly about boudoir habits and opium. Her mid-life struggle is tough on a modern girl: Esther is torn between two sweet, handsome, exotic men (one from Barbados, the other Romanian), who have dreamy smiles and love to work with their hands.
In short, Esther's life is Sex and the City, circa 1905.
True, instead of a column, Esther writes romantic letters to a studly laborer in Panama. (Esther, an African-American woman at the turn of the century, actually can't read, but friends help.) Instead of frank sex-talk with girlfriends at the diner, there's thinly veiled sex-talk in cramped Victorian flats. Instead of Aiden the carpenter, there's a nervous textile merchant named Mr. Marks. Instead of Mr. Big, there's George, the ditch-digging super-model.
But like Sex and the City, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, at City Theatre, is funny, sugary and empowering -- drama for people who are tired of drama. In Nottage's universe, people seem to worship their own stereotypes: The Jewish guy is skittish and awkward; the Caribbean man is a soulless con artist; the bourgeois blonde is romantic and flighty and probably bi. The honky-tonk whore? She plays the piano and has a heart of gold.
The demographics are so familiar that we are never distracted from the clever one-liners. This is revisionist history at its happy-go-luckiest, and if you don't mind comfort and predictability, Intimate Apparel is a pleasure to watch.
There have been murmurings, in the local theater world, about what is happening at City Theatre. When recent seasons included Tuesdays with Morrie (life-lesson schmaltz), Honus & Me (baseball schmaltz), and Hearts Are Wild (rock 'n' roll schmaltz), younger, brasher thespians scoffed.
Well, let them scoff. City Theatre has a storied past, and if the days of Oleanna (1993) and even Gompers (2003) are over, then they're over. Intimate Apparel proves that schmaltz has its merits; stories can be serious without being heavy.
Skeptics, meanwhile, might question why Intimate Apparel won Nottage a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. But here, they can't knock the talent: As Esther, Tracey A. Leigh is a delight, combining the anxious tics of nerddom with the quiet confidence of an independent woman. She'll warm your heart, and probably revive your interest in Season 4 of Sex and the City.
Intimate Apparel continues through May 27. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. 412-431-CITY or www.citytheatrecompany.org