Reviewed by G.L.Horton
The revival of Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig at the Huntington Theatre Company begins with a huge gesture of welcome from the audience: as the lights come up, David Korinsĺ─˘ sumptuous set is greeting with the seated equivalent of a Standing O. The set is certainly applause worthy: it is huge, lavish, multi-leveled, multi-roomed, and chandeliered; painted in pastels yummy enough to eat and garlanded with enough Victorian roses to qualify as a valentine. Itĺ─˘s not a Stately Home, exactly, but a London house that displays the exquisite taste and extraordinary affluence of its owner, Sara Goode (Maureen Anderman). Sara is the oldest of the three Rosensweig sisters, the one who has traveled the farthest from her somewhat Bohemian Brooklyn Jewish origins to become head of the Hong Kong/Shanghai Bank in England. Iĺ─˘m not sure whether the audienceĺ─˘s warm welcome was for the designerĺ─˘s achievement or Saraĺ─˘s -- either way, subsequent developments reveal that everything chez Goode isnĺ─˘t quite as rosy as it first appears.
The playĺ─˘s occasion-- what makes this night different from all other nights -- is that it is Saraĺ─˘s 54th birthday, and her younger sisters have flown in to London to celebrate with Sara and her college age daughter, Tess (Amelia Alvarez). It is also the first birthday Sara has had since the death of her mother, a formidable and formative personage whose opinions live on in the sistersĺ─˘ evaluation of their own life choices. Possibly in reaction to her own motherĺ─˘s technicolor personality, Sara mutes her controlling impulses when it comes to her daughter. Tess may threaten to take off for foreign parts in the sole company of a student revolutionary with a working-class accent, but only the mildest of objections pass Saraĺ─˘s lips. Tess will not be forced, like Sara, to flee the nest to find herself. Too bad that itĺ─˘s so difficult to come up with an alternative.
Dr. Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Deborah Offner) arrives in London leading a gaggle of tourists from the Temple Beth El sisterhood in Newton, where she and her lawyer husband have embraced their roots. This middle sister is ĺ─˙Doctorĺ─¨ the same way she is ĺ─˙Gorgeousĺ─¨-- in recognition of her aspirations and her propensity to give folksy and ĺ─˙funsyĺ─¨ advice to anyone within earshot. Gorgeous has expanded her know-it-all role from her family and friends to local talk-radio, but she rockets from boastful to defensive in the course of a single coruscating sentence when showing off for her intellectually formidable sisters.
Pfeni, the youngest, (Mimi Lieber) -- who was plain Penny until Gorgeous persuaded her to upgrade the branding of her byline-- is a respected foreign correspondent who has specialized in covering the oppressed and undeveloped. Pfeni seems to be at a crisis point, exhausted by her dangerous work and questioning whether her efforts to help humanity through bringing problems to light isnĺ─˘t a form of exploitation of the victims whose troubles she chronicles. Pfeni is tempted to give up her crusades for comfortable and well paid travel writing-- and to give up her independence by turning her long-distance relationship with hot shot theatre director Geoffrey into something legal and permanent, something like an old fashioned marriage. Bisexual Geoffrey does love her. But does he love her with the perfect love that casts out fear? Or is it fear of AIDS that has motivated his attachment to her and his proposals of marriage?
The males who fill out the guest list at Saraĺ─˘s party suggest the range of companions available to the sisters circa 1991. Saraĺ─˘s fusty old aristocratic escort Nicholas (Ed Peed) doesnĺ─˘t seem up to Saraĺ─˘s weight, even though he is loaded with English social capital. Mervyn Kant (Jeremiah Kissel) is determined to storm the ramparts of Saraĺ─˘s reserve, but he is a brash Jewish-American businessman right out of the stereotypical neighborhood Sara has fled. While Kisselĺ─˘s charm, intelligence, and ardor make him attractive enough to be a prim princessĺ─˘s perfect partner in a 1930ĺ─˘s screwball comedy , contemporary feminists would be inclined to view Saraĺ─˘s permanent pairing with such a man as a step backwards. Tessĺ─˘s boyfriend Tom (James McMenamin) is important to her mainly as a method of proving to her mother that her life is her own and that she can throw it away if she wants to. Once Tess has won that skirmish, she loses interest in Tom. Tom is underwritten, the only role that seems to have ĺ─˙datedĺ─¨, and the audience loses interest in him long before Sara and Tess do. T. Scott Cunningham as Pfeniĺ─˘s long distance partner Geoffrey is so entertaining a companion that we hope against all odds that his relationship with Pfeni will satisfy them both.
In fact, the elusive satisfactions of the traditional Marriage Plot seem to be the subject matter for the evening, and each of the women is provided with a mating dance of sorts during the course of the play. ĺ─˙Sistersĺ─¨ is --almost-- a old fashioned romantic comedy, with suitors and obstacles as abundant as roses. It would be reasonable to hope that it would end with the characters that we have come to care for paired off and determined to enjoy happily ever after. That doesnĺ─˘t happen, alas. There are plenty of satisfactions along the way, though: witty dialogue, family warmth, comic turns and emotional pratfalls. But happiness isnĺ─˘t even an aspiration. The center of warmth and and support is the matriarchal sister-daughter-aunt bond, but it is stretched thin and seems destined to dwindle away. The sisters live on different continents. Tess is eager to sample advice from her aunts, but this may be simply to distance herself from her mother-- she evinces no interest in her Newtonian cousins. When people refer to Wasssersteinĺ─˘s play as Chekhovian, they may mean simply that it demonstrates that Nothing Ever Works Out, or they may mean that there are depths of inexpressible melancholy behind the charactersĺ─˘ speeches. The question is, to whom does this conclusion apply? Everyone? Women? Americans? Jews? Rosensweigs? The degree of universality may determine the depth of the melancholy that gradually replaces the memory of all the vivid characters and ĺ─˙funsyĺ─¨ goings-on that are so delightfully diverting while the play lasts.
Director Nicholas Martin establishes a finely layered set of cross-relationships among his cast of familiar local actors and imported New Yorkers. The three leading women have strongly contrasting body language, from Andermanĺ─˘s stiff upper everything elegance as Sara, to Offnerĺ─˘s eccentric dance of Brooklynite overemphasis, with Lieberĺ─˘s cosmopolitan polish in the middle. But when the sisters are alone together, reminiscing and commiserating, common tones and gestures come into play, and suggest that their differences were constructed as a kind of defense against the underlying family pattern-- which each has gone to great lengths to escape. Another splendid series of physical detail is contributed by Kissel, who has an extended pantomime after Sara pointedly declines to offer Merv a drink or a dinner invitation, leaving the drawing room under the assumption that Merv will do the gentlemanly thing and take himself off. Merv gets himself a drink, and Kissel makes it clear that Merv will stay for dinner unless someone throws him out bodily-- and his movement around the room as he shrugs off discomfort and patrols the boundaries of territory heĺ─˘d like to mark as his is a masterful piece of acting, delicious to watch.
Generally, all the actors inhabit the Huntington stage space with comfort and confidence. Perhaps even a bit too much comfort and confidence. At press opening, some punch lines only got laughs from whichever portion of the house the actor was facing. The people sitting near me had trouble hearing the younger actors generally, and I do wish that the creative team at the Huntington would pay more attention to the Theatreĺ─˘s peculiar acoustics. The proscenium stage was built in the days when standard box sets were designed to serve as sounding boards, and actors sacrificed visual interest and naturalism in order to deliver lines front-and-center where they were sure to be heard. Wassersteinĺ─˘s wit deserves to reach the ears even of those seated on the extreme right and left or under the balcony.
The other function of the spectacular Rosensweig set, of course, is as visual metaphor. First, for success. All the sisters are programmed to strive and succeed, and on a purely material level Sara is spectacularly successful. She may be the only female in the world to be employed at her high level in the banking business. Merely to own, manage, and live comfortably in the house we see is a kind of pinnacle of achievement; and, like Portia or Olivia, Sara gains gravitas from being the lady of such a house. On the other hand, this perfect bower of roses functions somewhat ironically. First, the servants are conspicuous by their absence. A house like this requires servants, and presumably they were involved in the preparation and of the dinner party and are lurking somewhere out of sight; but why are we never shown the revealing details of how Sara and family relate to the help? The house represents tradition and history, privilege and obligation-- but none of these qualities are Saraĺ─˘s by inheritance, and neither these nor the house itself will be passed on to Tess, who isnĺ─˘t interested in the tradition it represents and doesnĺ─˘t feel that she belongs in it. When Tess goes away to university, the house will be sold, and presumably Sara will move into a modern flat. The house isnĺ─˘t Saraĺ─˘s identity, but has it served as a touchstone for the values of the sort of people Sara has admired and sought to be accepted by?
The house is only the most prominent of the materialistic tropes represented by costumes (Robert Morgan) and props and furniture that the characters have invested with meanings, but which are tested and fail them in the course of the play. The most extensive is Gorgeousĺ─˘ romance with designer clothing and shoes, but each of the characters has a moment when their consolations let them down, and they are forced to turn away and seek happiness elsewhere. There are no Prince Charmings to ride in on a white horse and and offer ever after. Thatĺ─˘s the hard-learned lesson of feminism. But is it a truth about men, or the truth about happiness? The melancholy aftertaste of this play suggests that illusions about love might even be preferable to illusions about success.