A Rosensweig by Any Other Name

13. January, 2010 Theater 1 comment

Although San Jose Rep and TheatreWorks had both done the play in the past, the late Wendy Wasserstein’s 1992 Broadway hit had somehow never made it to San Francisco until now, so I’d never seen The Sisters Rosensweig before Saturday night—nor, if truth be told, had I seen any of Wasserstein’s plays. I had some vague notion that it had something to do with Chekhov’s Three Sisters, because of my unexamined assumption that anything with three sisters had to be informed by that play, from Lear’s daughters to Daisy Duck’s nieces. Turns out the Rosensweigs aren’t Chekhovian in the slightest, although Wasserstein tosses in a few Three Sisters references in the same offhand, apropos-of-nothing way that distinguishes a lot of play’s bon mots.


Dan Hiatt and Nancy Carlin in The Sisters Rosensweig. Photo by Ken Friedman

I opted to not to read up on the play before The Jewish Theatre San Francisco’s production at Jewish Community Center San Francisco. I’d just come to it cold and see what I got out of it. I didn’t even read the program before the show began, which meant that for a long time I didn’t know where or when it was set. Nina Ball’s sumptuous set of an upscale living room tastefully appointed in mid-century modern furnishings led me to believe it might be some time in the 1960s, an assumption reinforced by a character asking what a woman’s husband does instead of what she does. Sara, the head of the household, speaks with an affected quasi-British American accent one seldom encounters outside of old black & white movies, which led me to believe that maybe the play was set in New England at a time when people of the proverbial humble beginnings were under the impression that that was how classy people talked.

It soon emerged that it’s actually set in 1991 in London, where American-born Sara Goode (née Rosensweig) lives as the local head of a Chinese-owned international bank. She’s having a dinner party for her 54th birthday, and her two sisters have flown in to celebrate. Travel writer Pfeni Rosensweig has just got back from India, reunited with her mostly-gay boyfriend Geoffrey. Loquacious sister Gorgeous Teitelbaum, a Boston-based radio advice-show host, is soon to follow.

Dan Hiatt is marvelous as Merv, a friendly and outgoing fake-fur peddler who stops by to drop off a shirt for his friend Geoffrey, takes one look at Sara and invites himself to stay for dinner. After she’s left the room, hoping he’ll take the hint and leave, he keeps on talking, flirting with her in absentia, and it’s a beautifully played, priceless scene. Also terrific is Nancy Carlin as Gorgeous, garrulous and larger than life, with gaudy getups, big hair and a East Coast working-class accent that has only become more pronounced over time. She keeps up a delightfully dizzying stream of messages from her rabbi, cosmetic advice and words like “funsy.”

“You’re a hard woman,” Gorgeous tells Sara, and indeed the twice-divorced banker with the stilted accent is a bit of a cold fish. But Jeri Lynn Cohen does a good job of making her, if not entirely sympathetic, at least not totally unlikable. The flashes of humor give her a hint of warmth and her no-nonsense manner in saying exactly what she does and doesn’t want emit an aura of strength, even when it’s misdirected.

While her character doesn’t do much but be supportive, Deb Fink is a nicely grounded presence as Pfeni—who was originally Penny, and without seeing her new name spelled out it’s hard to see why she thought “Fenny” would be an upgrade. It’s hard to tell whether her globetrotting ways and hippie garb are supposed to be eccentric, because to a San Francisco audience she’s the one who seems to have her act most together, unless you count the fact that she’s dating a stereotypical gay man dabbling in heterosexuality.Cassidy Brown is flamboyantly theatrical as Geoffrey, who is after all a theater director, but aside from some nonsense about his love for American R&B so much of his dialogue is about his sexuality that it feels like that’s all he’s there for. Among the ridiculous projects that Geoffrey’s directing on is a musical version of The Scarlet Pimpernel—and to demonstrate that there’s no idea so unpromising that someone won’t think it’s fabulous, a Pimpernel musical indeed hit Broadway only five years after Wasserstein’s play debuted.

Other characters are more thinly drawn. Even Sara’s daughter Tess (Sarah Schwartz), who opens the play listening to an old LP of her mom’s school a cappella group for a class project, is really more of a situation than a character. She’s caught up in her boyfriend’s cause of Lithuanian independence amid the fall of the Soviet Union without really knowing much about it, and slovenly Slavic boyfriend Tom (Matt Hooker) doesn’t seem to know much about anything. Victor Talmadge is appropriately pompous as London bigwig Nick Pym, who seems to Sara like the sort of man she should be seeing but is mostly there to be taken down a peg by the dry wit of just-plain-folksy Merv.

Artistic director Aaron Davidman’s production brings out the humor beautifully, but aside from some romantic will-they-or-won’t-theys the play itself is unsatisfying. Droll as it may be, much of the dialogue is stagey and disconnected, and the vague discontents of well-off professional women who feel like they’re spinning their wheels ultimately isn’t all that compelling. Nostalgia plays a large role in the play, half-resisted memories of the old neighborhood and a poorer but perhaps simpler life. Although many of its cultural references are of its time, both in its overall tone and in its treatment of assimilation and women breadwinners it feels a bit like a relic of an earlier era.

The Sisters Rosensweig
Through January 17
Kanbar Hall, JCCSF
3200 California St.
San Francisco, CA

Second show of 2010, attended January 9.

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  1. 1 / 14 / 2010 6:06 pm

    Beyond just the review itself, which is great, it’s wonderful to see your thought process, how you come into the theatre, what goes through your mind as you’re sitting down to watch a show. Great to have more of your reviews around to read!





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