Being a single woman in Manhattan has its funny side

Isn't It Romantic? Play by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Amy Saltz.

``You look like a Vermeer and I look like an extra in `Potemkin,' '' wails Janie Blumberg to her best friend. They are of course discussing meeting men.

That's important in ``Isn't It Romantic?'' Wendy Wasserstein's comedy about coming of age in Manhattan, which has just opened at Arena Stage. Age in this case is 30, which is rolling down on them both like the giant tunnel boulder in ``Raiders of the Lost Ark.'' If you're not married by 30, their mothers keep reminding them, you're on the shelf.

But neither Janie Blumberg nor her best friend, Harriet Cornwall, is sure what she wants: marriage and family or career and freedom, or one from Column A and one from Column B.

Ms. Wasserstein writes socko dialogue, the kind that might result from sitting urban satirist Fran Liebowitz down to dinner with Woody Allen to discuss the Angst of single life in Manhattan. The result is nearly two hours of, to use the Washington term, substantive laughter.

``Isn't It Romantic?'' originally commissioned by New York's nonprofit Phoenix Theater, is currently running Off Broadway and in Los Angeles as well as here. The Washington production is zinged along by its star, Lisa Goodman, who is endearingly funny as Janie.

For Janie, life is studded with crises. She is a writer, so it's all material for her typewriter, but the crises pile up. Her mother, the free-lance dancer who dresses like Cyndi Lauper, is a daily crisis. And her eventual fianc'e, Marty, the kosher popover king who owns a string of restaurants, is another. So is her father, the greeting card executive, who brings her both a Russian 'emigr'e taxi driver (speaking no English) as a potential husband and an improbable mink coat that would fit Paddington bear.

Marty calls her ``monkey'' all the time despite her winces, her parents hover over her with smothering love, and no one understands why she wants to be a real writer when she could settle down in Brooklyn with Marty and write popover commercials. Janie also believes in romance the way some children believe in the tooth fairy. And she thinks that her friend Harriet really means it when she says independence is more important than love.

Harriet (or Hattie) has her own problems, beginning like Janie's problems with her mother. Mrs. Cornwall is a sleek, tough, executive mother who runs her own company, files gifts from Hattie under H, has power lunches at the Four Seasons, and goes home each night to watch reruns of James Garner's ``Rockford Files.'' Harriet's other problem is the handsome shark Paul Stuart, her boss's boss, a predatory guy who tells his wife he's at the Laundromat during evenings with Hattie. ``You remind me of my first wife'' is his idea of a pass.

Through it all Hattie remains an obdurate ultrafeminist until, on the verge of her 30th, she prances off to marry a man she's known for only three days. Janie, who has broken her engagement, is shocked. There had been an earlier hint, though, in Hattie's words to Paul: ``You and I are a lot alike. We don't want to be alone, and we don't want to go forward. So we serve the function of blocking each other's lives.''

As that speech indicates, there are more serious undertones in Wendy Wasserstein's exuberant and amusing play. There is a small string quartet being played in the relationships between the two dissimilar mothers and daughters. And there is the unsettling question of how young women today, with society's emphasis on ``having it all,'' can cope with the real demands of both a traditional marriage that requires a full commitment and a profession that requires the same full commitment.

``Isn't It Romantic?'' bounces along merrily, though, thanks to crisp, deft direction by Amy Saltz. There are witty sets by Patricia Woodbridge, who turns even a clich'e like the New York skyline into fresh images that support Wasserstein's vision of urban life. And effective, upbeat use has been made of pop music, from the Pointer Sisters' ``Jump'' and Tina Turner's ``What's Love Got To Do With It'' to the nostalgic Rodgers and Hart title song of the play.

In addition to Lisa Goodman's irrepressible Janie, a generally fine cast includes Marilyn Caskey as a brittle but appealing Hattie, Scott Wentworth as the sweetly uncomprehending Marty, Rudolph Willrich as the cheating heel Paul Stewart, the ineffable Halo Wines as Mrs. Cornwall, Dorothea Hammond and Ben Karpen as Janie's dear but exasperating parents, and Christopher Hurt as Vladimir, the cab driver they flag down for Janie. There are a few bumps in the production -- like moments of tedium in Act II -- but by the end, as Mrs. Blumberg always says, ``everything presses itself out.''

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