The Sisters Rosensweig | Critical Review by John Simon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Sisters Rosensweig.
This section contains 791 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Simon

SOURCE: "The Best So Far," in New York Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 43, November 2, 1992, pp. 100-01.

In the following review, Simon praises The Sisters Rosensweig for its convincing characters and humorous dialogue, asserting that the work is Wasserstein's best to date.

The Sisters Rosensweig is Wendy Wasserstein's most accomplished play to date. It is through-composed, with no obtrusive narrator haranguing us. Its central, but not hypertrophic, character is the eldest sister, Sara Goode, divorced from her second husband. An expatriate in London, she is celebrating her fifty-fourth birthday, for which her younger sister Gorgeous Teitelbaum has flown in from Boston, where she dispenses personal advice over the airwaves. From farthest India, the youngest sister, Pfeni Rosensweig, has jetted in; now a travel writer, she is shirking her mission, a study of the lives of women in Tajikistan. Equitably, all three sisters end up sharing center stage, both literally and figuratively.

Gorgeous, who, we are told, is happily married with four children, is group leader of the Temple Beth-El sisterhood of Newton, Massachusetts, on a visit to London; Pfeni is here to touch base with her lover, the famous stage director Geoffrey Duncan, whom she has converted to heterosexuality and may soon be marrying. Here, too, is a friend of Geoffrey's, the New York faux furrier and genuine mensch Mervyn Kant. Rounding out the cast are Tess, Sara's precocious teenager; Tom Valiunus, Tess's dopey but good-natured punker boyfriend, with whom she is planning a political-protest trip to his ancestral Lithuania; and Nicholas Pym, a British banker, stuffed shirt, and suitor to Sara.

This is the stuff of Anglo-American comedy, more specifically Anglo-Jewish-American drawing room comedy, in which some related but diverse mores and some diverse but trying-to-become-related people are playing off one another. Sara, a banker herself, is high-powered, smart, and sex-starved. Pfeni and the ebullient but labile heterosexual Geoffrey are having difficulties. And the ostensibly contented Gorgeous is there to stick her bobbed but nosy nose into everybody's business.

A seasoned theatergoer may well guess several plot developments, though there are also a few surprises. But plot is far less important than character and dialogue, both of which Miss Wasserstein does handsomely and humorously. She is surely one of our wittiest one-liner writers, but under the bubbles and eddies of her wit are real people in deep water, resolutely and resonantly trying to keep from drowning. And she is able to orchestrate the interaction of her disparate characters into a complex, convincing polyphony. There may be a touch of the arbitrary here and there; mostly, however, the play flows, entertains, and liberally dispenses unpompous wisdom about ourselves.

Particularly pleasing is that Sisters manages to be both of its time, 1991, and of all time, unless human nature changes radically, which for these 5,000 years it hasn't. The three Rosensweig sisters are by no means unworthy descendants of a famed earlier sisterly trio, to whom an occasional quotation in the text alludes. If I have any problem with the play, it is that several of its characters have a propensity for bursting into song and dance at the slightest, or even no, provocation. In a straight play, this can be as unsettling as long spoken passages in a musical.

It is to the skilled cast's credit that every last drop of humor is extracted easefully, even as the no-less-germane modulations into seriousness are achieved with gearshifts a Lexus or Infiniti might envy. Jane Alexander's Sara is one of the most memorable of this stylish actress's creations; here is perfect timing backed up with the subtlest changes of intonation and incomparable facial play. Without effort or undue emphasis, Miss Alexander's diaphanous face reveals the playground of ideas and battle-ground of emotions; it is as if the countenance itself had repartee, soliloquies, and tirades at its wordless disposal.

Madeline Kahn, as Gorgeous, is once again her special blend of philosopher and fool, shrewd observer and egocentric, outrageous jokester and wistful waif—a ditsy Diotima whom none could improve on. Frances McDormand is saddled with the autobiographical character whom most playwrights either overwrite or, as in this case, slightly underwrite. But she does Pfeni gamely and touchingly, opposite John Vickery's dazzlingly campy and exquisitely English-theatrical Geoffrey. Robert Klein's Mervyn is all we expect from this sovereign clown: exuberantly wisecracking, irrepressibly amorous, impudently ingratiating. And Patrick Fitzgerald's affably preposterous Tom has no lack of assurance and authenticity.

I am less taken with Julie Dretzin's Tess and, especially, Rex Robbins's Nicholas, but they do not gum up the works. Daniel Sullivan's direction is as painterly as it is musicianly: everything in the right place and tempo. John Lee Beatty's set is devilishly right, and Pat Collins's lighting and Jane Greenwood's costumes collude with it cunningly. You will not be bored here.

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This section contains 791 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Simon