The Sisters Rosensweig | Critical Review by Stefan Kanfer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Sisters Rosensweig.
This section contains 913 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Stefan Kanfer

SOURCE: "The Trivial, the Traumatic, the Truly Bad," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVI, No. 5, April 5-19, 1993, pp. 22-3.

Kanfer is an educator, critic, editor, novelist, playwright, and nonfiction writer who has written for television. In the following excerpt, he discusses the weaknesses of The Sisters Rosensweig, noting its focus on Jewish identity and assimilation, and its allusions to Anton Chekhov's 1901 Tri sestry (Three Sisters).

Sisterhood is powerful. Take Chekhov's The Three Sisters. Wendy Wasserstein did. The playwright transported a trio of siblings from imperial Russia to present-day England, gave their yearnings a feelgood spin, and diluted them with gags. Result: a demand for tickets so great that The Sisters Rosensweig recently moved from a modest space in Lincoln Center to the full-sized Ethel Barrymore Theater.

Happily, Jane Alexander is still in the role of Sara, a fast-track international banker. To celebrate her 54th birthday, Sara's two younger siblings arrive simultaneously at her sumptuous London house. Pfeni, née Penny (Christine Estabrook), is a travel writer; Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn) is a tornado in the guise of a housewife, mother of four, and host of a Boston call-in radio program.

At first, all three women seem busy and fulfilled. But as the play develops, each turns out to be as needy as a poster child. Divorced twice, Sara has assumed a gloss of English hauteur. Men find her threatening, and stay away in herds. In reaction to the ice-cold Sara, her teenage daughter Tess (Julie Dretzin) has fallen passionately in love with an unkempt prole, Tom (Patrick Fitzgerald). The two spend their hours driving Sara up the rose-patterned walls, demonstrating for Lithuanian independence and dining exclusively on "primary color food." Pfeni keeps on the move because she cannot set down physical or emotional roots. The one man in her life, Geoffrey (John Vickery), is a self-absorbed bisexual director. "Love is love," he declares. "Gender is merely spare parts." Gorgeous boasts about her multiplaned life, but in many ways she is the saddest of the siblings, stuck with an unresponsive—and unemployed—husband, deriving her satisfaction from nonstop chatter and constant changes of wardrobe.

Into this hothouse world comes Mervyn (Robert Klein), a middle-aged American merchant who stops by for a moment, and stays for dinner. Mervyn appears to be a Bronx Babbitt; then, as the evening progresses, he reveals an intellectual bent and a natural irony. ("My daughter teaches semiotics. That means she screens Hiroshima Mon Amour once a week.") He is the first man in years to evince an interest in Sara. Will she succumb to his advances? Is Yitzchak Rabin Jewish? Of course she will. The more important question is: Are the Rosensweigs Jewish? That is not so certain.

Identity is Wasserstein's subtext, and from time to time she considers the price of assimilation as well as the many ways of being an expatriate from one's spiritual home. When Gorgeous insists on lighting Sabbath candles, Sara, who has been fleeing her origins since adolescence, takes it as a personal affront. When Pfeni becomes obsessed with the travails of the Kurds, she recovers the social conscience of her late mother—a conscience rekindled in Tess. At such moments Sisters edges toward a real theme. But 90 per cent of the evening is concerned with situation comedy. Some of it is sharply observed ("What a pleasure," says Sara, "to live in a country where our feelings are openly repressed"). Much of it is as cheap as Gorgeous' junk jewelry. The New England yenta hears Mervyn talking about Metternich and the Concert of Europe. "What concert?" she yaps. "I must have missed that one on the tour." Jackie Mason has turned down better material.

In the playwright's uncertain hands, events rarely happen organically; they occur because she wants them to occur. Vickery, for example, is a skilled and energetic performer, but all he offers here is a collage of eccentricities and one-liners. Nothing he says or does suggests that he would be attractive to any woman, and his farewell to Pfeni ("I miss men") is as unsurprising as her reply ("So do I"). Similarly, young Tess ceaselessly tells her family how committed she is to the Cause; she and Tom plan to fly off to Vilnius. Toward the end of Act Two she announces that she isn't going after all. At a London rally, she suddenly felt like "an outsider" and decided to stay home. The real reason Tess didn't go is much simpler. Wasserstein needed her to make a very debatable point about Jews being on the periphery of world events.

Given this shallow, brittle work, several actors perform miracles. Alexander, under the bright direction of Daniel Sullivan, lends Sisters an intelligence and flair that are not in the script. Kahn and Klein, both experienced comedians, are alternately poignant and show-stopping hilarious. The rest of the cast varies between slick and competent, abetted by John Lee Beatty's sumptuous set and Jane Greenwood's witty costumes.

It may seem unfair to compare Wasserstein with Chekhov—who could stand against the Master? But she invites the comparison: One of the sisters even quotes Masha's famous line about yearning for Moscow. And in the Playbill, the American makes a point of bringing the Russian onstage: "I've always been a big fan of Chekhov," recalls Wasserstein, "so I thought the idea of three sisters would be a novel one for a play." It was novel, back in 1901. Today it requires something more. A big fan creates a lot of breeze, but very little fresh air.

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This section contains 913 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Stefan Kanfer