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THEATER / COMMENTARY : When a Play Transcends Ethnicity : ‘The Sisters Rosensweig’ reaches beyond its ethnic roots. How does Wendy Wasserstein make it happen, and why does it work?

<i> Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic</i>

In New York there is a saying: Only three kinds of people go to the theater--Jews, homosexuals and Jewish homosexuals. Clearly this is not literally true, but it does acknowledge that commercial theater has traditionally catered to a specific audience.

These two (or three) groups are not only avid theatergoers, but they also write and are the subject of more than a representative share of commercial hits, from works by Arthur Miller to Herb Gardner to Tony Kushner to Wendy Wasserstein. This raises an interesting question: At what point do playwrights transcend the concerns of their communities, particularly when those communities routinely support the theater?

Many of the so-called AIDS plays, for instance, speak to audiences largely untouched by the disease. Some do not. For example, David Drake’s 1992 one-man show about growing up gay, “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me” (brought to the Tiffany Theatre last year), struck this critic as parochial and self-congratulatory. But it attracted an enthusiastic following that needed to hear what it had to say. Far less exclusionary was William Finn’s “Falsettos” (1992), which reached both a gay audience and a straight audience that could, for whatever reason, translate a character’s death from AIDS into any number of different kinds of losses.

There is no doubt that Wendy Wasserstein’s rueful 1992 comedy “The Sisters Rosensweig,” making its L.A. premiere at the Doolittle Theatre, flatters a Jewish audience that enjoys seeing itself portrayed on the stage. One character, a furrier named Merv, pours himself a large Scotch while speculating on the cliche that Jews don’t drink. “It’s a myth,” he muses, “made up by our mothers to persuade innocent women that Jewish men make superior husbands.”

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The line has drawn howls from all three audiences with whom I’ve seen the play; it’s the howl of recognition and pleasure that punctuates most of the evening. But Wasserstein’s play, modeled after the well-made Broadway comedies the author saw as a girl in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, goes well beyond its own joking attention to Jewish concerns, and beyond many of the popular comedies that inspired it. “The Sisters Rosensweig” may be a polished drawing-room comedy, but it is also a play about loss of identity, Jewish or otherwise, and it is especially rich when it touches on the painful process of reconnection.

The play tells the story of three sisters: Pfeni (Joan McMurtrey), the strangely passive travel writer in love with Geoffrey (Richard Frank), a theater director whose bisexuality doesn’t seem to trouble her; Gorgeous (Caroline Aaron), who favors fake Chanel suits and words like funsy and who is utterly aware of the cliched Jewish housewife people see when they look at her, and Sara Goode, whose story this really is.

Sara (in a lovely performance by Mariette Hartley) is a Brooklyn-born Jew who has assimilated seemingly beyond recall; note her mastery of the British pronunciation of the word schedule. Twice divorced, she heads an international bank and lives in stylish, if goyish, splendor in London’s Queen Anne’s Gate. Aside from the small matter of a husband, Sara appears to have it all. But when her sisters show up for her 54th birthday, it becomes clear that Sara, the oldest and apparently most stable of the sisters Rosensweig, has forgotten who she is.

For one thing, Sara is dating a Nazi named Nick Pym (Ian Stuart). At least, that’s how Gorgeous sees it. Nick is actually only a former Thatcher MP, with an alarming habit of asking questions like “So many Jewish American men wear those shirts. Why is that?”

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Somewhat more left-leaning, Sara’s daughter Tess (Debra Eisenstadt) is threatening to join her boyfriend (Barry McEvoy) as a Lithuanian freedom fighter. In the meantime, though, she is studying a recording her mother made as a Radcliffe undergrad with her singing group, the Cliffe Clefs. Tess is captivated by the younger, softer Sara she hears there, a woman who felt free enough to sing in public.

But Sara has become, according to Gorgeous, “a hard woman.” And Sara is particularly hard with Gorgeous. With her faux Louis Vuitton bag and penchant for Yiddishisms, Gorgeous is Sara’s most vivid reminder that she is, in fact, Jewish and she once was something less finished than the brilliant success we see now.

On this particular weekend, Sara is besieged by her roots. Gorgeous insists on putting a schmata on her head and reciting the Sabbath prayer. (Sara forces Pfeni, the youngest sister, to blow out the ceremonial candles that Gorgeous has just lit.) But worst of all is the appearance of Geoffrey’s friend Merv (Charles Cioffi), the furrier who comes to dinner and will not take no for an answer.

To Sara, Merv is declasse and pushy. He brings up the Holocaust immediately upon entering a dinner party. His presence puts Nick Pym--and his Hitlerite mustache--in stark relief. Sara would be shocked to know what the audience senses immediately--Merv the furrier is exactly what Sara needs.

In their brief courtship, Merv croons along with Sinatra to “Just the Way You Look Tonight.” When it’s Sara’s turn, she refuses. “I just can’t sing for you, Merv,” she says, a little regretfully. But there is hope: She can sleep with him.

Later, Sara listens to the Cliffe Clefs record that fascinates Tess. Riveted by the sound of her own 18-year-old voice singing “McNamara’s Band,” she sinks into a deeply buried memory (a moment aided immeasurably by Pat Collins’ shadowy lighting). Sara refinds a part of herself that is very far away. She begins to sing a Yiddish-ized version of “McNamara’s Band,” a version she must have learned long before Radcliffe, before she knew to be ashamed. The audience at first laughs at the strange sounds coming out of the mouth of Sara Goode. But the laughter turns almost immediately into a kind of awe--here is the mysterious, essential act of reconnection.

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Critics sometimes accuse Wasserstein of being glib, in the way they complain that Neil Simon sacrifices character development for gags. Certainly Wasserstein’s characters are clever; often they can’t resist cracking jokes. This is a comedy, however rueful, and in a comedy it helps to have witty characters.

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For me, though, the play suffers from self-consciousness in its more serious vein, specifically when it pays tribute to Chekhov. With the three sisters gathered on the sofa (one of them brings up a samovar at this point), the talk turns to what they wish for. “That each of us can say at some point that we had a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness! Do you think that’s possible, Sara?” asks Gorgeous, in an uncharacteristically poetical mode. The moment curdles; it’s an emotion that should have been conveyed to us and not force-fed.

But a little overwriting notwithstanding, “The Sisters Rosensweig,” is a breakthrough play for Wasserstein. Earlier this year I interviewed the playwright for the Paris Review, and we talked about her youthful tendency, along with other writers developed at Playwrights Horizons in the late ‘70s, to write plays made up of episodes, ending in blackouts.

“I guess you could say we were the first generation who grew up watching television and going to the theater,” she said, noting that she, Christopher Durang, William Finn and others were breaking form from the generation before, playwrights like Lanford Wilson and John Guare, who were all breaking form too, from Edward Albee and Arthur Miller.

Wasserstein recalled that, while serving on a committee at the Yale School of Drama, she spoke to a young directing student whose desire was to “explode text.”

“I thought of Miss Julie exploding over the Yale School of Drama saying, ‘There goes the Seagull!’ ” Wasserstein said. “And I thought, ‘Well, before you explode it you should know how to do it.’ And I thought I would just like to try to do this because in fact playwriting is like making stained glass. If it is becoming a more and more obscure craft, then it would be interesting to know how to master that craft, and I would like to try and do it.”

Wasserstein clearly was shooting for something more ambitious in her 1988 play “The Heidi Chronicles.” But it was the classic structure of “The Sisters Rosensweig” that freed Wasserstein to write her most moving scene yet.

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Why is it so powerful to see a character reconnect with a younger self, particularly on the stage? It currently happens every night at the Universal Amphitheatre when the title character in “The Who’s Tommy” gazes in a mirror. I am still haunted by a scene at the end of Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play “Cloud Nine,” in which an older woman embraces her younger self. That the younger woman was the ridiculously sheltered wife of a British colonialist and was played by a man made the moment no less moving.

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There’s always something disturbing about a Jew who’s embarrassed by Jewish things, or any comparable denial of the imperfections of the self. That embarrassment signals a disassociation, a jangled note, a tension we all know in one way or another. The embrace of self--in “Cloud Nine” it was a literal one; in “The Sisters Rosensweig” it occurs when a woman sitting in a chair sings to herself--offers relief, release, the admitting of a painful truth.

It’s an archetypal moment, a primal moment, a moment when a person forgives himself for everything he has failed to become. It’s a transcendent moment. It allows for possibility. It only happens once in a great while. And it’s happening right now onstage at the Doolittle Theatre.

* “The Sisters Rosensweig,” Doolittle Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood, (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-2000). Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Also today, next Sunday, 7 p.m.; Aug. 11, 18, 25, Sept. 1, 8, 15, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 18. $15-$46.


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