Romance and feminism in a mixed-up world

Times Staff Writer

The Old Globe's revival of Wendy Wasserstein's 1992 comedy "The Sisters Rosensweig," which opened Thursday, pays homage to what the playwright did best: create roles for women who struggle to balance professional and personal fulfillment in a world dead-set against their having it all.

Wasserstein, who died in January at age 55, wrote about characters not unlike herself -- smart, witty, Jewish, aggrieved. The kind who, after graduating from the right schools, rose to the challenge of highly demanding careers only to find themselves questioning their choices.

Determined not to let gender bias hold them back, Wasserstein's dames have a harder time contending with their own internalization of society's lingering expectations, especially where it concerns men. Each of the Rosensweigs, for example, has adopted a different tactic for dealing with the easily threatened opposite sex, although none has found an ideal solution.

Sara Goode (Janet Zarish), the twice-divorced sister who says the best thing about her marriages was the chance to revise her name, has basically given up on the prospect of another husband. A highly successful international banker living in London with her teenage daughter (Stefanie Nava), she allows herself no more intimacy than the occasional date with a snobby British man whose tastes run to much younger women.

Pfeni Rosensweig (Deirdre Lovejoy), an unmarried travel writer who's always jetting off to obscure parts of the globe, returns to London to stay with her sister Sara and resume her lackadaisical romance with Geoffrey Duncan (Tom Nelis), a bisexual theater director who makes Tommy Tune look butch.

The most aggressively traditional of the sisters, Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Jackie Hoffman giving a scene-stealing performance in the role originated by Madeline Kahn) has realized their mother's dream -- she has married an attorney, lives in an exclusive suburb and knows where to shop for fake Chanel.

Gorgeous has also become a radio talk-show personality, dispensing advice to other women, although her visit to London (to lead the Massachusetts Temple Beth-Israel Sisterhood on a tour of the British crown jewels) reveals that her own domestic situation is far from perfect.

The plot couldn't be more conventional. The sisters descend on Sara's posh town house to celebrate her 54th birthday. Mervyn Kant (Mark Blum), a Jewish furrier from Long Island, arrives to drop off something for Geoffrey and becomes smitten with Sara. The first act is a long lead-up to their tumbling into bed together; the second explores whether she can let down her defenses enough to give the budding relationship a chance.

Chockablock with one-liners, the play is Neil Simon with a feminist consciousness. Make that semi-feminist. In matters of love and loneliness, Wasserstein refused to toe party lines, preferring to capture the un-ideological human comedy with as much shtick as possible.

She was so eager to entertain, in fact, that she sometimes had trouble pursuing her truthful quarry far enough, comforting us with sitcom reassurances rather than standing tall in the stark, solitary light that prompted her into playwriting in the first place.

Wasserstein could also be guilty of romanticizing name-brand glamour. Like Woody Allen, she could never resist drop-dead gorgeous apartments and the Ivy League types inside. And while grappling with her characters' ambivalence toward ethnic identity and family, she could become sentimental in a way that undermined her satire.

David Warren's staging amounts to a tribute to Wasserstein's vision, warts and all. The play could stand some cutting (it's nearly three hours long), and some of the comedy should have been toned down out of respect for reality, but the production isn't out to correct dramaturgical faults. It rejoices in the laughs (hats off to Hoffman) and savors the emotion.

The female leads don't necessarily make for a believable family portrait, but they have a rapport that's fun to watch. And though Zarish's presence doesn't scream genius banker, she has a lovely vulnerability that turns her affair with Blum's likably understated Mervyn into something worth caring about.

Nelis serves up a flambeed performance as Geoffrey, but his success in the role only raises further doubt about his character swearing off men to be with Pfeni, who couldn't possibly be that bohemian.

Yet the mismatch occasions one of Wasserstein's best detonations. Gorgeous, tired of keeping quiet about Pfeni's far-fetched mate, pronounces: "I know you can't judge a book by its cover, but sweetsie, you're at the wrong library altogether."

A moment of vintage hilarity from a writer who left us too soon.


'The Sisters Rosensweig'

Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Aug. 20

Price: $19 to $59

Contact: (619) 23-GLOBE

Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

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