Review: South Coast Repertory Revisits Wendy Wasserstein's “THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG”

Michael L. Quintos

  • Associate Los Angeles Theatre Critic

Despite being birthed in the early 1990's, “THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG”—the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Wendy Wasserstein's acerbically witty and vibrantly poignant play about a trio of fascinating, strong-willed Jewish-American sisters—has a remarkably timeless, relatable quality, evidenced by South Coast Repertory's delightful and beautifully-acted OC revival production now continuing performances in Costa Mesa through June 2.

The age-defiant play was written (and set) almost thirty years ago, yet for my first time experiencing this engaging play (or, shockingly, any Wasserstein play for that matter), it didn't quite feel wholly tethered to a specific time period for me, at least on the onset. Thanks to its naturally appealing characters that don't feel like stock archetypes trapped in a retro bubble, the play—under the keen direction of Casey Stangl—comes across as a contemporary-leaning, very thoughtful theatrical piece populated by strong, three-dimensional female characters.

Purposely, I came into seeing “THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG” with a virtual blank slate, blissfully unaware of its plot, prior history, or theatrical background—which, in hindsight, turned out to be a really good thing. Despite casually hearing of Wasserstein's legacy as a celebrated, gone-too-soon playwright, not knowing too much about the play itself allowed me to enjoy it simply on the merits of its contextually rich material: a modern, progressive-minded, multi-layered comedy with serious, dramatic overtones surrounding three marvelously-crafted, independent women that anybody would love as company.

Sure, mere details betray its 1991 setting: the corded landline phone that rings from a side table, the shoulder-padded early 90's garb (designed by Denitsa Bliznakova), the cassette tape recorder a young woman uses, or the pointed conversations about volatile current events sweeping over Europe of that specific summer. But, overall, the play quite loudly speaks to its female-centric theme that is just as relevant today as it was when the play first greeted audiences in its initial debut.

And, yes, that overarching theme is one that is certainly still top-of-mind today for most people, not just women: the ongoing tug-of-war between career success and personal fulfillment—and whether or not it's possible for one to choose paths that would lead to an equal amount of both, ensuring one's pure satisfaction.

For each of these smart, tenacious, self-assured, yet humanly vulnerable women, one particularly nagging question has dictated their respective journeys: What is the real barometer for total and complete happiness… achieving career success or a having a robust home life?

In its own pointedly specific way, “THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG” tries to make the case that this work/life balancing act is even more pronounced for Jewish women, particularly of a certain age and, maybe, even personal ideology.

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As we get to know each of the three sisters, we notice quite immediately that each has chosen different trajectories in their lives despite their common ancestral and biological connections. On paper, all three women are each quite accomplished in their own right—all without the aid of a man, thank you very much.

The play's central figure is the eldest and, perhaps, most successful—at least, financially speaking—of the three siblings: the very serious, very proper Sara Goode (the sublime Amy Aquino), the director of a prestigious Hong Kong Bank who is now currently living the glam life in a luxurious townhouse (beautifully shown via John Iacovelli's spectacular set) in the posh Queen Anne's Gate section of London. Sara lives there with her college-aged daughter Tess (Emily James), a smart free-thinker with activist tendencies. The surprise dynamic? Mom and daughter actually like each other and don't appear to be in conflict. In fact, when we meet Tess, she's in the midst of a school project chronicling her mom's past.

There's every reason to admire Sara. Though Sara is a proven dynamo in the (still) male-dominated world of business—she's been on the cover of Fortune Magazine twice—she's apparently not so successful in the romance department, with already two divorces on her belt. Even her current beau is a not-so-promising prospect himself, a skeevy local politician named Nicholas (Julian Stone) whom Tess detests and brazenly labels a Nazi.

Sara—as a means to shield her underlying vulnerability—always seems to put on a very stoic, carefully confident exterior. She's even described in the play as being "warm and cold at the same time." Inside, though, Sara appears to be in a deeper pain she dare not let others see. Earlier that year, Sara had to miss her own mother's funeral because Sara was hospitalized for something people are dubbing "female trouble" (turns out it was cancer).

Much of the events of the play—which sort of resembles a live-filmed sitcom—encircle the occasion of Sara's 54th birthday dinner, which prompts visits from her two sisters. All three have left behind their Brooklyn, New York roots to pursue their own respective dreams, and have now gathered together in the same city—apparently a rarity for the Rosensweig girls.

First to arrive is the youngest Rosensweig sister, Pfeni (the buoyant Betsy Brandt from TV's Life In Pieces), a renowned travel writer who has spent much of her adult life country-hopping from one exotic locale to another. Armed with no luggage but lots and lots of separate shopping bags, the constantly mobile Pfeni has just come from Bombay, even though she looks like she just stepped out from the catalog pages of Anthropologie.

Right from the get-go, it's clear that she has a strong connection with her wide-eyed, activist-minded niece Tess, who admires her aunt's past as a human rights investigative journalist. It's no surprise, then, to learn that Tess is dating her own pseudo-revolutionary in the form of young hottie Tom (Riley Neldam), a boy her mom Sara tries her best to, um, tolerate.

On the Pfeni romance front—if you can call it that—Pfeni herself has an on-again, off-again beau in London, the flamboyant Geoffrey (Bill Brochtrup), an openly bisexual director at the National Theatre, whom she reconnects with whenever she's in town. Though they share a sexual relationship, the pair act more like gossipy best girlfriends than anything—perhaps a sign that Pfeni subconsciously prefers the company of unattainable men that won't tie her down to one location. For his part, Geoffrey is conflicted himself, struggling to keep a boyfriend that he is deeply in love with but has hurt him deeply or to "settle" for a comfortable, easy-going casual thing with Pfeni, whom he genuinely adores, too.

And like a whirling dervish of kitsch and hairspray, Sara and Pfeni's other sibling—outspoken middle sister Gorgeous (the fabulously funny Eleanor Reissa)—is a dizzying swirl of spunk and sass. Unlike her more well-travelled sisters, Gorgeous chose a somewhat more conventional path to personal fulfillment: she lives a happy life in Massachusetts with her loving husband and her brood of four children. Late in life, her naturally big, talkative personality "accidentally" lands her a job as a radio talk-show host, in which she dispenses advice to her audience who all seem to think she's an actual doctor.

She may be a bit "extra" for some, but, boy, no one can ever accuse Gorgeous of being a downer at a party. Like her big, over-the-top personality, she speaks in grand gestures and dresses in bold colors—and proudly admits her fabulous frocks are just designer knock-offs that save her a bundle.

And unlike her siblings, Gorgeous still clings to her Jewish heritage (and its traditions) like an imbedded badge of honor. Is she a walking stereotype? Maybe. But on her, it's infectiously joyful and even sweetly endearing. It's quite a contrast from her sisters' non-existent relationship with their family's culture. For Sara in particular, "abandoning" her Jewish roots was a way to distance herself from the stereotype—even though she may have unconsciously embraced another: a hoity-toity posh Brit, complete with affected, fancy-aired accent and the holier-than-thou attitude that comes with it.

Surprisingly, it is this standoffish, hoity-toity personality that makes Sara curiously attractive to Mervyn (the excellent Matthew Arkin), a relatively friendly furrier by trade, and himself a Jewish transplant from Brooklyn, too. He shows up at Sara's party as an invited guest of his friend Geoffrey, and becomes instantly smitten with her, much to Sara's detestation.

He and Sara couldn't be more opposite—which is perhaps why their budding romance seemed inevitable right from the start. Mervyn may seem simple and uncultured, but somehow he can read Sara and knows what makes her tick, and he uses this knowledge to his advantage to break down her walls which, perhaps, is a long time coming. Sara, naturally, tries to resist this flirtation… almost as if saying she doesn't deserve such attention.

But, eventually, Sara allows herself to be pursued—a decision that switches up her life.

An engaging, introspective character study about what humans do to try to achieve personal gratification, “THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG” may not have a typical plot but it has plenty to show and say about how life works, particularly for these very interesting cast of characters that Wasserstein has assembled for this play—which were loosely inspired by her and her two sisters.

These empowered, self-realized sisters, particularly Sara, are a fascinating, riveting bunch, filled with the kinds of relatable struggles and neuroses that many—not just women—can identify with wholeheartedly.

Like many of us, the Rosensweig clan wants to "have it all"—or at least a manageable balance of a fulfilling career and a home life surrounded by love and contentment. It's, of course, not always easy to attain, and at times sacrificing one over the other may be inevitable. The play, in its own way, hoists this loaded idea to the forefront in a very intriguing manner that still very much resonates for audiences today.

In this play's particular instance, Sara is given the choice to open herself up to the possibility of having both… or at the very least open herself up to having a little non-serious fun for a change. Her family encourages this and for good reasons. The sisters genuinely love and care for each other, so it's only natural for them to want the best for each other.

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That love is so palpable with the trio of excellent actors this play has gathered for this wonderfully captivating production. Brandt is just darling in her role as the youngest Rosensweig, Pfeni, a frequent globe-trotter who seems to be enjoying what she loves, but hints at a woman longing for a break from the nomad life, even if it means having your heartbroken as a side-effect. She also does a great job essaying a woman who's in love with a gay guy—an unfortunate, but alas still very real phenomenon especially in the world of musical theater.

Reissa is easily the play's winningly vivacious scene-stealer as Gorgeous—a role she dives into with gusto. What's even more remarkable is that not only does she entice laughs effortlessly, she also allows for a bit of quiet vulnerability to creep through, even though she of all the characters exudes the most confidence and moxie. She brings a lot of heart to a play that's otherwise mostly brains.

And, of course, Aquino is just outstanding in the role of Sara, peppering her performance with a myriad of emotional breakthroughs and nuances that make her riveting to watch. In the hands of any other actor, the role could have been a one-dimensional persona that puts on a judgmental scowl and not much else. In Aquino's hands, Sara is a truly complex, multi-faceted character with lots of layers that her scene partners can slowly peel back.

The rest of the cast is also a talented bunch. Arkin easily sells himself as a worthy sparring partner with Aquino, and their relationship tennis match here is a fun watch. He's straddling a very fine line between tenacious and intrusive, but somehow it doesn't come off annoying nor creepy. Actually, Arkin's Mervyn is believably adorable, easily making a great case for himself as to why Sara should give love (or even lust) another try, even though she's experienced some bad ones in her past. Brochtrup's Geoffrey is also an enjoyable presence, particularly in a giddy scene where he allows himself to "let go" and dance in his underwear—a liberating sight of pure joy that most of the characters in this play are just too afraid to express. James' young Tess is a lovely antidote to her mother's seriousness, showing us that even someone as warm as Tess can somehow bloom from Sara's rather cold world.

Though Neldam and Stone appear only briefly in the play, both still make memorable turns with their respective roles. As Tess' working-class boyfriend Tom, Neldam effectively represents that boy every mom can't quite wholeheartedly like nor hate—because he humorously has qualities that exude both reactions, in a way. And as Nicholas, Sara's rather oily current boyfriend, Stone thoughtfully creates a mysterious enigma that you can't quite pinpoint… whether he's a well-meaning guy or, actually, just a total conservative dick.

If, like me, you have not experienced this Wasserstein play for yourself, or perhaps it has been a while since you've seen “THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG,” I urge you to check out this excellent new production at South Coast Repertory with a fine cast of actors and top-notch production values that make it worth seeing.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.

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“THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG” continues at South Coast Repertory through June 2, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.