Theater J’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” is an insightful take on familial bonds, especially sisters.
Wendy Wasserstein once described her play, “The Sisters Rosensweig”, as about “being Jewish.” It is that. But it is also about siblings, what it is that divides them, and what it is that brings them together. They come from the same family atmosphere, and yet how could they be so different?
The Rosensweig sisters gather at the well-appointed home of the elder sister, Sara, to celebrate her 54th birthday. Sara, performed with elegance and poise by Kimberly Schraf, is the overachiever, the successful one. She is the first woman to be a representative of a major bank in Hong Kong and she has moved to London and submerged her Jewishness. She is twice divorced.
The second sister, Gorgeous, has flown in from Newton, Mass. where she hosts a radio talk show as Dr. Gorgeous. She is not a doctor. She is married to a lawyer and is the mother of four. She is the pretty one and is portrayed with wacky exuberance by the energetic Susan Rome. She loves fine clothes, but can’t really afford them. Rome has one of the most moving scenes when she receives a complete Chanel outfit and tries it on. Up to this point she has been unsympathetic, but with her reaction, Rome knows that Gorgeous is all bravado, and shows there is much more to her.
Rounding out the three sisters is Pfeni, an unmarried globe-trotting journalist who is unable to settle down and who seems to have an attraction for the wrong men. The restless, Pfeni, Susan Lynskey, is the sister who keeps running away. She is once again in love with the wrong man.
Wasserstein has created a humorous, but poignant look at a birthday weekend in a comfortable London home, a setting designed by James Fouchard filled with all the comforts, an overstuffed sofa, a fireplace, a staircase and shelves decorated with the appropriate candle sticks and vases, books and records. It is clearly the home of a successful woman who shares it with her daughter, Tess, a teenager with youthful leftist leanings.
Into this weekend comes Geoffrey, Pfeni’s off-and-on boyfriend, a flamboyant theatrical director unable to settle on his sexuality. James Whalen’s Geoffrey, is a colorful mix of antics that could be overacted. Whalen doesn’t allow Geoffrey to venture too far over the top.
Rounding out the cast is Sara’s friend, Tom, a stiff, upper class English political figure, and Mervyn, a friend of Geoffrey He seems at first an unwelcomed party crasher. He is a wealthy furrier from the United States who is a practicing Jew, and is immediately smitten with Sara. There is also Tess’s boyfriend, Nick, (Edward Christian), a Lithuanian who is off to join the protests in his country, and the rebellious Tess, Caroline Wolfson, plans to join him. He is a nice enough boy who dresses the part of a student radical.
It is all a Wasserstein wonderful mix of characters caught up in the world of the three sisters who have drifted apart. Their mother has died recently and they have lost the one person who kept their focus. They have become strangers. But being siblings, there is more they understand about each other than any one of them would care to admit.
Sara doesn’t know how to interact with Mervyn, a sensitive Michael Russotto, a man of her age who lost his wife a few years before. He is successful and wealthy, but not sophisticated at Sara’s level. He is comfortable with who he is and Russotto understands Mervyn, who uses quiet, sometimes goofy humor to penetrate Sara’s guarded indifference. In less confident hands, Mervyn’s likability could be bluted. But Russotto never overplays his role.
Sara sees herself as a two-time loser and is unwilling to develop a commitment with Mervyn. Tom, Josh Adams, who she has been seeing, is safe, there is little chance that relationship will go anywhere. But Mervyn awakens emotions.
Kasi Campbell’s direction smoothly controls Wasserstein’s interplay of the humor and more important underlying seriousness of the sisters who need to love each other in the way that adult siblings do as they reach for a time in the past when they believe they knew each other better, but that too is an illusion.
What makes “The Sisters Rosensweig” work so well is that Wasserstein understands the three siblings can never escape from each other and cannot escape their Jewishness. It is what makes them who they are in spite of their differences. And in “The Sisters Rosensweig,” Wasserstein emphasizes that there are no firm resolutions other than the unshakable bond of sisters.
“The Sisters Rosenweig” continues through February 21 at Theater J, 1529 16th St NW. Tickets are $12-$67 and can be purchased at 202-518-9400 or online here.