Wasserstein Play Is Strong on Comedy, Weak on Depth

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG. Comedy by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Executive producer Bernard Gersten. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, Andre Bishop artistic director.

WHEN the teenage daughter in "The Sisters Rosensweig" confesses her profound dismay at trying to discover who she really is, the quandary reflects not only that of the character, but of the play itself.

The new Wendy Wasserstein play ricochets effortlessly between the best-remembered atmospherics of Noel Coward and the stubbornly jokey patter of American situation comedy. Given Ms. Wasserstein's remarkably facile writing style, the result is at times very funny. It is also disappointingly one-dimensional.

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The sisters of the title are three: Sara (played by Jane Alexander) the eldest, who is twice divorced and celebrating her 54th birthday, runs the European division of a Hong Kong bank; Pfeni (Frances McDormand), the youngest at 40, marks time as an international travel writer while putting off more serious writing endeavors and engaging herself in a part-time but serious romance with Geoff (John Vickery), a director; and Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn), the middle sister, who displays great satisfaction with he r transition from housewife, mother, and ready conversationalist to local radio personality and future cable television star.

Gorgeous, who is leading the ladies of her suburban Massachusetts Temple Beth-Israel Sisterhood on a tour of the British crown jewels, and Pfeni, dropping in on her way from Bombay to Kurdistan, come to Sara's lavish London townhouse for her birthday, and for the next 36 hours confront the Problems with Their Lives.

Because the Problems are dealt with in terms of behavior (how the characters spend their time, who they are, or with whom they should have a relationship) instead of emotions (why they feel that way in the first place), the story fails to explore deeply the turmoil in their lives. Instead, hardly three minutes go by without the intrusion of a well-turned quip.

Serious subjects are introduced here: the individual connections to religious and cultural heritages, the influence of parents on a child's life choices, and even the unsettling influence of a country's economic transition on its social stability.

SARA speaks of the doubts a woman in her mid-50s often has about chances for future happiness. Gorgeous stifles the constant stress of maintaining a cheery, or in her own word "funsy" demeanor, when life is falling apart at home. And Pfeni, speaking for what may be the central issue of the play, wonders whether she is doomed to be forever a witness to life and never a participant.

Like Pfeni, Wasserstein's story witnesses but does not participate in these subjects. People and events flow through the sedate townhouse, as Geoff introduces an American businessman (Robert Klein) into Sara's life, while he himself opts out of commitment to Pfeni, turning to a different sexual orientation. Sara's teenage daughter, Tess (Julie Dretzin), takes up with a working-class young man who champions Lithuanian independence. She struggles with and eventually rejects a passionate involvement with hi s cause. Her decision, like the play, occurs as an action rather than a revelation.

Because this is a play written by Wasserstein, the relentlessly upbeat mood slides along, greased with warm, amusing asides, studiously crafted witticisms and flat-out one-liners. Taken together, they fashion a clever but ultimately unenlightening exercise in a well-made, well-played, entertainment.

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