The Sisters Rosensweig | Critical Essay by Richard Hornby

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Sisters Rosensweig.
This section contains 624 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Richard Hornby

SOURCE: "English Versus American Acting," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 365-71.

In the following excerpt, Hornby discusses characterization in The Sisters Rosensweig.

Wendy Wasserstein's new play, The Sisters Rosensweig, like her earlier Heidi Chronicles, is a pseudo-feminist piece that will no doubt eventually be performed in every college theatre in the country. The three eponymous sisters at first give the impression of being independent women, but soon reveal a predilection for inadequate men, who nonetheless manage to dominate their lives.

The oldest sister, Sara, heads an international bank. The second, amusingly named "Gorgeous," is the wife of a corporate lawyer from Newton, Massachusetts, and a radio personality herself. The youngest is Pfeni, a globe-trotting journalist. As the play begins, all three gather in London for Sara's fifty-fourth birthday. Sara, who has been married three times, in the course of the play has a one-night affair with a furrier who talks like a second-rate Jewish comic. Gorgeous reveals that her corporate lawyer husband is actually unemployed and playing at being a film noir detective, supported by her income as a radio purveyor of advice. Pfeni breaks up with the man in her life, a homosexual stage director. Sara's daughter, Tess, breaks up with her young man, an Irishman dedicated to the unlikely cause of Latvian independence.

Thus the four women, for all their supposed liberation, are defined by their relationship with men. Sara is supposed to be a big-time banker, but we see her spending no time at all on what in real life would be an all-consuming profession; in the course of the play she cooks a meal, sleeps with a man, and chats with her sisters and daughter, all traditional female activities. Gorgeous' radio work, though lucrative, is revealed to be utterly bogus; her principal obsession is elegant clothing. Pfeni, like the title character in The Heidi Chronicles, is hooked on a male homosexual, who leaves her because he misses men. If this is supposed to be a feminist play, I would hate to see one in which Wasserstein was being traditionalist!

The Broadway production of The Sisters Rosensweig succeeded because of superlative performances by two of the three leads. (If nothing else, Wasserstein can attract fine actresses.) Jane Alexander, who in real life is WASP to the core, played the role of Sara with a perfect balance of Jewishness and elegance, strongly mixed with intelligence and humor. Nevertheless, Madeline Kahn, the funniest American actress since Fannie Brice, managed to surpass her. Her Jewish inflections, perfect comic timing, and boundless energy made her performance a joy. At one point, the furrier brings Gorgeous the genuine Chanel suit she has always dreamed of wearing; Kahn's reaction with surprise, delight, and near-sexual ecstasy was worth the price of admission.

As Pfeni, Christine Estabrook was the weakest of the three sisters, but part of the problem was in the writing; for a hot-shot international journalist, Pfeni seems surprisingly staid and passive. John Vickery brought energy and charm to the role of the gay director; the rest of the cast were unremarkable. Daniel Sullivan directed with pace and subtlety; Jane Greenwood's costumes were, as usual, superb, as was John Lee Beatty's elegant setting, a Queen Anne style living room, bright and diverse, with beautiful white flowered wallpaper. One of Beatty's great strengths as a designer is his ability to suggest a world beyond what we see. Here, his gracefully angled setting, with its many levels and areas, not only made for lovely, constantly changing stage pictures, but led us imaginatively to the remainder of the sumptuous townhouse, and the genteel quarter of London in which it is situated. Finally, Pat Collins' lighting … perfectly suggested the cool, misty, shifting light of soggy London.

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This section contains 624 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Richard Hornby
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