In 2013, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandburg urged a generation of young women to lean in. Three decades ago playwright Wendy Wasserstein urged young women to stand up and take a bow, speak out and make their voices heard.
Theater J is reviving a Wasserstein classic this month, The Sisters Rosensweig, at the Washington, DC JCC’s Goldman Theater, and the question arises as to how relevant this play is 23 years after its off-Broadway premiere.
Drawing inspiration and structure from Anton Chekhov’s exceedingly well-made The Three Sisters, the Rosensweig women and their assorted companions and partners, too, have their eccentricities, their heartaches and heartbreaks. But they prevail, not by leaning in but by going forward.
Rita Rosensweig’s three daughters are facing middle age and as they gather in the well-appointed London flat of high-powered banker Sara for her 54th birthday, they reignite old hurts and old habits and one maybe finds new love. Eldest and most perspicacious Sara is the queen bee of the family. She is brilliant and intimidating. Middle sister Gorgeous took a more expected path, marrying well and raising four children in Newton, Mass., while working as a radio talk show psychologist, doling out advice to the dysfunctional and overdressing to hide her own problems.
Youngest sister Pfeni is the bohemian. With her hair arranged in a messy topknot, she wears eccentric clothes and black nail polish, which all hint at her artistic nature. A one-time journalist, she’s now a self-described travel writer, jetting off to Bombay or Tajikistan at a moment’s notice. (The writer, she also seems to be Wasserstein’s alter ego.) Finally, Sara’s teenage daughter Tess carries traits from all three Rosensweig women. She’s whip-smart like her mother, attractive like her Aunt Gorgeous and a free spirit with a yen to travel and save the world like her Aunt Pfeni.
Director Kasi Campbell pulls together the disparate pieces, bits of conversation, witty repartee, monologues and even a little Chekhovian play-within-a-play with a steady hand.
Yet the piece, particularly in the first act, lags. It takes time for the bright dialogue and laughs to catch hold. This isn’t helped along by the casting. Kimberly Schraf’s Sara is brittle and brusque, deep voiced and demanding, befitting her superwoman character, but her evolution – yes, too expectedly at the hands of a male suitor – is too pat, too much too fast. Susan Lynskey as Pfeni, the youngest Rosensweig at 40, is not believable; both her character and her demeanor suggest a thirtysomething woman, not one a decade older. Susan Rome relishes her role as “the pretty one,” as Rosensweig family legend has it that her father named her, and she strives mightily to live up to it. With her knock-off designer suits and handbags and her disapproving eye cast at her sisters, she’s the classic middle child aching to break free.
Each sister represents a type of Diaspora Jew.
Sara is the Jew in denial, the self-hating Jew. She rejected her Brooklyn roots and her Judaism, settled in London and puts on a hint of British accent.
Gorgeous is the all-American Jewish mother archetype, post-World War II. She’s leading a group of Sisterhood ladies on a tour of London, and when we first meet her she insists on lighting Shabbat candles at the moment of sundown – though she’s clearly not Orthodox – and she wears her conventionality like a brooch.
Pfeni is the free spirit. She hasn’t rejected Judaism and her Jewish roots; she’s allowed her connections and memories to fall by the wayside as she seeks solace and a deeper spirituality in other cultures.
The men of the play serve as points of conflict. Pfeni’s lover Geoffrey (exquisitely flamboyant James Whalen), a high-strung theater director, can’t decide whether he’s gay or straight. Gorgeous’s husband, back home in Newton and unseen in the play, is not so perfect. Sara’s daughter Tess (Caroline Wolfson) calls her mom’s special friend Nick (Edward Christian) a Nazi, and her East End boyfriend rallies for Lithuania. Then Mervyn, the synthetic furrier, walks in. He rattles Sara with his easygoing comfort and connection to his Jewishness. Played too blandly by Michael Russotto, Merv is the old neighborhood Sara has tried to put behind her; Russotto, though, doesn’t convince that’s he’s Brooklyn enough, or Jewish enough. Yet, the two exchange some sharp-tongued barbs that soon lead to more.
There’s a lot going on in Wasserstein’s play. It’s topical from 25 years ago. The Soviets are invading Lithuania, aerobics is all the rage, the specter of the AIDS epidemic hovers over Geoffrey’s friendship and Sara still listens to LP records.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Sisters Rosensweig has much to say on a lot of topics, some still relevant today, others more dated. The sweet spot of the piece comes toward the end of the second act, when all three sisters have a few minutes alone together to drink wine, reminisce, giggle and tease one another. The bickering and competition native to many Jewish sisters has subsided and there they all are on the sofa. Whenever I see it, I wonder why Wasserstein didn’t just end the play there. Instead, she prolongs the ending and shifts gears once more to tie up a few more plot points.
Wasserstein was the voice for a generation of smart, successful, highly educated women. She wrote what she knew – from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side . Her plays spoke to and inspired women to be their best selves, to wrestle with their choices and stand on their own two feet; men weren’t superfluous in her feminist critique, but they certainly weren’t necessary. Wasserstein and her uncommon women could get along without them. In its day, Wasserstein’s work was extraordinary. It’s hard to say though if this Theater J production is too ordinary or if Wasserstein play doesn’t hold up as well as it should.
The Sisters Rosensweig through Feb. 21, Theater J, Washington DC JCC. For ticket and other information, call 202- 777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.