The Sisters Rosensweig
by Wendy Wasserstein Directed by Daniel Sullivan at Shubert Theatre through February 6
Wendy Wasserstein has a knack for turning personal experience into brilliantly evocative plays that reach audiences of all backgrounds. Her first was about college students at her alma mater Mt. Holyoke; her next about young single women living in New York. The Sisters Rosensweig, her most recent Broadway success now on national tour, is about three sisters remarkably like Wasserstein and her two sisters.
The sisters Rosensweig have gathered in London for the 54th birthday of the eldest sister, Sara Goode, a London banker. Gorgeous Teitelbaum, a radio talk show host and housewife, is leading the Newton Temple Beth-El Sisterhood on a tour of London. The youngest, Pfeni Rosensweig, is a travel writer just in from Bombay. Also attending the birthday dinner are Sara's rebellious cliche of a daughter Tess, Tess' improbable Lithuanian resistance fighter boyfriend Tom, and Pfeni's bisexual boyfriend Geoffrey. A stuffed shirt Englishperson makes a brief appearance but he is mainly there as contrast to Mervyn, the lovable faux furrier from Brooklyn, who arrives at Sara's house to give something to Geoffrey and stays for dinner.
Mariette Hartley is excellent as Sara, a nice Jewish girl from New York who went to Radcliffe and became a prominent international banker at a time when nice Jewish girls weren't supposed to do such things. Hartley succeeds in making real both Sara's public front and the inner worries that she is reluctant to display even to her sisters. Sara is a difficult part to play--she is both the most restrained of all the characters and the most important of them. Hartley keeps Sara on an even keel, displaying small flashes of humor without losing the essential reserve necessary to the character.
Gorgeous is everything that Sara ran away from. She lives in Newton with her nice Jewish lawyer husband and her adorable children and quotes from her rabbi incessantly. As written by Wasserstein, she is a vivacious, scene-stealing steamroller of a sister. The way that Caroline Aaron plays her in the first act, however, Gorgeous comes off as little short of a parody. Aaron is so over the top with lines like "you're wandering how I got my name, well, isn't it obvious?" that you can almost picture her dropping in on Linda Richman's Coffee Talk. As it becomes clear that there is a lot more going on than is obvious in Gorgeous' life as well, Aaron improves dramatically. When Gorgeous finally breaks down and confides in her sisters, Aaron is absolutely wonderful in making the character sympathetic. Sara is not the only sister with spirit and Gorgeous' exit line in the second act is so heartfelt that Aaron's earlier unbalanced portrayal is all but forgotten.
Joan McMurtrey gives a very good and very natural performance as Pfeni, who, as Sara puts it, "is on a permanent junior-year-abroad." McMurtrey is properly zany and funny as the madcap youngest sister and even makes her relationship with Geoffrey seem believable. She is less convincing when agonizing over her career but that is partly the fault of Wasserstein, who, as always, shows more interest in people's relationships to each other than in their relationship to their work.
It is obvious from the moment he walks in that Mervyn, the haimish furrier, will hook up with Sara, the assimilated banker. Charles Cioffi makes it all seem logical, however, and even manages to get through a tortured scene involving the Concert of Europe without seeming too much of a cliche. Richard Frank walks a similarly thin line as Geoffrey, the bisexual director who proclaims that "love is love, gender is merely spare parts." Frank, entertainingly gay (no pun intended) as he and McMurtrey cavort around the house, is also capable of pulling off quite serious moments in the second act.
Given how well Wasserstein turns stereotypes inside out for the rest of her characters, it is disappointing that the daughter Tess is not more three-dimensional. Not only is Tess sick of England, she also wants to join the Lithuanian resistance; not only does she hate her mom's friends, she actually talks about how "bourgeois" it is to have a dinner party when people are starving. The inconsistencies in her character are blinding--she's planning to run away to Lithuania but is working on a summer project for school; she rails against her mother's lifestyle but, after that token comment about it being bourgeois, happily joins in on the dinner party. Some of this could have been alleviated had Tess been played in a more light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek manner (as possibly Wasserstein intended.) However, Debra Eisenstadt gives a heavy-handed performance as the sulky daughter, exacerbating Tess's tendency to self-parody.
With the exception of Eisenstadt, director Daniel Sullivan has drawn excellent work from his company. Like the rest of the creative team for this national touring production, he worked on the original Broadway production and it shows. The staging is masterful and Sullivan has worked hard to keep the many humorous moments from unbalancing the show. Set designer John Lee Beatty's gorgeous London house fits Sara's assimilated English life perfectly--it looks like she ordered it straight from Laura Ashley, brocade pillows and all. Jane Greenwood has a similar sure touch with the costuming; everything from Pfeni's princess gown to Gorgeous' running outfit is perfect. The lighting by Pat Collins is occassionally too dramatic (we don't really need a totally dark stage with a single spot on Sara to know when she's thinking) but otherwise appropriate.
The Sisters Rosensweig received a rapturous reception at The Shubert on opening night--hardly surprising given that most of the audience probably knows women exactly like the Rosensweig trio. But this is a play about relationships and family and as such, should play equally well in New York or Honolulu. Or even Moscow...