Sy’s Bargain House deals with the life of the Finbergs, a Jewish family comprised of Sy the father and husband; his wife Rita; and their two sons; Michael, a public school teacher, and Ben, a successful podiatrist. Sy’s younger sister, Goldie; a neighborhood friend, Bernie; and Sy’s friend, Norm Singer also appear prominently. Minor characters include Jenny, Michael’s Vietnamese girlfriend; Mr. Benson, a school principal; and Selina Welsh, a teacher with whom Michael becomes romantically involved.
Act I opens with Sy and Rita returning home from their last day at Sy’s Bargain House, a small mom and pop clothing store they operated for forty-three years in a working class section of Philadelphia. They sit in the living room and reminisce. Sy feels he met his goal “to be the most successful mom and pop shop” in Philadelphia. Rita, however, finds this a hollow victory countering that selling cheap dry goods is not what she ever imagined doing. Through dialogue and vignette we learn that Sy worked at an accounting firm when they were first married but decided to take over the store from his mother when she became ill. Rita is annoyed that Sy never considered her feelings with regard to taking the store. In addition, she is critical of the store’s rundown location and feels he should have at least moved into more middle-class surroundings as the neighborhood gradually declined.
A knock on the door introduces Bernie, a family friend who congratulates them upon their retirement and also bring a box of pastries. After he leaves, Rita’s criticisms continue. She laments becoming so emotionally attached to the store and how disorganized it was. A heated exchange follows which is only interrupted by another knock on the door. It is Goldie, Sy’s younger sister. Goldie enters and asks Sy, “Was it worth it?” Rita does not understand what Goldie is referring to. Goldie tells Rita how Sy manipulated their mother into passing on the store onto him even though she had worked there since childhood. Goldie asks Sy again if taking over the store was worth losing her affection. Sy answers that it was and orders her to leave. Goldie exits and Sy walks toward the kitchen. Rita stops him mid-way. She has more to say but Sy refuses to listen. Instead, he tells of his own regrets. Hearing this Rita simply asks Sy to acknowledge how much she has done for him. Sy refuses and enters the kitchen while Rita returns to the sofa looking at the still unwrapped box of pastries as Act I comes to an end.
Act II opens with Rita, sons Ben and Michael, and Michael’s girlfriend Jenny returning to Rita’s home after visiting Sy’s grave on the second anniversary of his death. Rita goes upstairs to change while Ben, Michael, and Jenny sit in the living room. Ben and Michael talk about their father. Ben speaks bitterly while Michael is willing to move on and let things pass. As they talk there is a phone call from Bernie. Rita informs everyone that Bernie has asked her out on a date. She remains noncommittal.
Later Ben enters Rita’s bedroom to say goodnight. He mentions the issue of money and explains that she can protect her assets if she transfers her money to Michael and him whereupon she would receive an allowance. Rita is adamantly opposed as she relates that she received an allowance from Sy during their entire forty-six years of marriage. This is also an opportunity for Rita to tell of other more damning things about her marriage.
Bernie sits in a restaurant waiting for Rita. Rita enters, sits across from Bernie and they talk about living alone, their children, and reminisce about Sy. They order dinner and enjoy each other’s company.
Ben calls Michael from his office in Los Angeles and asks him to come visit as he has a serious issue to discuss. Michael agrees and flies to see him. Michael enters Ben’s office where he is shown a letter indicating Ben’s date for arraignment. The alleged crime is Medicare fraud. Ben relates how one of their father’s best friends, Norm Singer, was instrumental in introducing him to many important people and helping set up his practice. However, Norm is constantly short of money due to juggling numerous girlfriends. He thus asks Ben to falsify medical reports so that Norm can pocket the Medicare reimbursement as a means to maintain his lifestyle.
Though Ben resists at first, he relents since he feels some obligation for all that Norm has done for him. The FBI comes to investigate Ben’s records. Ben calls Norm into his office and tells him about the FBI’s investigation. Norm plays ignorant about the entire affair leading Ben to speculate that Norm set him up.
After some deliberation, Michael suggests that there might have been a conspiracy between Norm and their father to “do you in”, a theory Ben thoroughly rejects.
Michael returns to Philadelphia. He enters Rita’s home, tells her about his trip to Los Angeles, but does not reveal anything about Ben’s legal difficulty. Bernie enters, greets Michael, then leaves with Rita to have dinner. Michael, alone in the living room, is consumed with anguish. He imagines Sy entering the house and sitting in the armchair. Michael speaks to him about Ben and Rita. Unable to control his emotions, he falls to his knees and cries uncontrollably on Sy’s lap. Sy looks down derisively upon his son.
Rita and Bernie sit in the same restaurant where they had their first date exactly one year ago. Bernie has decided to use the occasion to propose marriage and is just about to do so when Goldie’s daughter, Hedy, passes their table. They talk about the breach between Goldie and Sy. Though Rita says there are two sides to every story, Hedy states that a great injustice was done to her mother and thus Sy should have apologized. The exchange leaves Rita thoroughly agitated. Though now reluctant, Bernie nevertheless proposes marriage. Rita not only rejects his proposal but decides not to see him again.
Michael and Rita meet the following day. Rita is certain there is something wrong with Ben. Michael agrees to tell her but first asks to hear what happened at the restaurant. Rita recaps her encounter with Hedy and Bernie’s marriage proposal. When finished, Michael begins talking (inaudibly) as lights fade thus ending Act II.
Act III opens on the first day of school for teachers. The principal, Mr. Benson, introduces Ms. Catherine Evans from the Office of Curriculum and Development. She introduces a new program called Achieve which requires teachers to follow scripted lessons. Michael questions her on the efficacy of such a program. Later the same day Michael becomes acquainted with a new teacher, Selina Welsh. They eventually become romantically involved resulting in Michael ending his relationship with Jenny, his longtime Vietnamese girlfriend.
Act IV begins with Michael visiting his brother in prison. With only three months before release, Ben is nevertheless worried that he may not survive given the high degree of anti-Semitism among the inmates. The next day Michael visits Norm Singer at his synagogue office. Norm admits that he set Ben up and explains his motivation for doing so. Though angry, Michael is nevertheless relieved to learn that Sy had nothing to do with Ben’s difficulties.
Upon returning to Philadelphia, he meets with Mr. Benson. They agree on a day for Benson to conduct a formal teacher observation. During the observation Michael deviates from the proscribed script. Benson is furious and storms out of Michael’s classroom. Jerry Feldman, the school’s union representative, meets briefly with Michael to learn how the observation went. Michael tells him about it, packs his school bag, and enters Selina’s classroom. There he discovers Selina and Chris Simmons, the school’s gym teacher, in romantic embrace.
That evening Michael, Rita, and Ben have coffee in Rita’s kitchen. They reminisce about when the entire family would meet for dinner every Sunday at the neighborhood diner. Sy appears. Ben, Michael, and Rita join him as they enter a restaurant. There they recreate the “shrimp scampi” scene Ben described in Act II, scene 1.
In the final scene Michael stands outside the nail salon where Jenny works and tries to speak to her as she leaves. She ignores him at first but is taken when Michael speaks to her in Vietnamese expressing how sorry he is and how much he misses her. After some thought, she smiles, points, and calls him “putz” as the play ends.