Women on the Verge

Wendy Wasserstein has been chronicling the female Zeitgeist for the American stage since the 1970s. From the gathering of college friends in Uncommon Women and Others through the tribulations of art historian Heidi Holland in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Heidi Chronicles, her signature has been intelligent heroines indulging in self-deprecating humor. Wasserstein has been praised as the voice of a generation because her plays attempt to tackle issues of identity and choice, and the conflicts arising from such issues. As if afraid to confront these conflicts, however, the playwright tends to go for gags at the expense of depth. The Sisters Rosensweig, Wasserstein's latest offering, now at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, is her most mature play to date. Still, its emotional impact is sacrificed to its jokes.

Short on plot and long on witty conversation, the play revolves around the London reunion of three American sisters. Reference to Chekhov's Three Sisters is intentional, and allusions to it abound as the three gather to celebrate the eldest sister's 54th birthday. Sara Goode (nee Rosensweig, before her two marriages) is an expatriate New York Jew, an Anglophile residing in a sumptuous townhouse that she cannot stop cleaning. Sara is not merely the first female manager of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, she is its only female manager. Contemptuous of her past, in her own words she has "turned my back on family, religion, and country."

At the other end of the political spectrum is sister Pfeni (nee Penny; she changed the spelling at the urging of Geoffrey, her bisexual theater director boyfriend who lives in Sara's downstairs apartment), who arrives from an assignment in India. A journalist who travels the globe documenting human suffering, she spends her first night in months with Geoffrey watching videos of Kurdish atrocities. The youngest of the three women at age 40, Pfeni can't seem to stop living her life as if, as she puts it, she were on "an extended junior year abroad."

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Then there is Gorgeous, dubbed so years earlier by her father; we never learn her original name. A radio psychologist who dispenses advice to the lovelorn, with a lawyer husband and four kids back home in Massachusetts, she arrives in London schlepping a tour group from Temple Beth-El behind her and wearing designer knockoffs while coveting, at least once in her life, a pair of real designer shoes. In keeping with Chekhov's trio, each sister longs for connection and fulfillment, drowns herself in work to avoid disappointment, and finds herself in uneasy relationships with her sisters and the others in the play. This latter group includes Sara's daughter, Tess, who is about to run off to Lithuania with her working-class boyfriend; Nicholas Pym, capitalist extraordinaire and suitor of Sara; the sexually ambivalent Geoffrey, perfect mate for the commitment-ambivalent Pfeni; and Mervyn Kant, faux furrier from New York City, who shows up at Sara's birthday party and ultimately confronts her well-hidden desire for closeness with someone.

The Sisters Rosensweig has its pleasures, not the least of which, in its South Florida premiere, is a smart and funny production, professionally engineered by the original Broadway director, Daniel Sullivan, and featuring an accomplished cast that rarely misses a beat. Particularly entertaining are Linda Thorson (Sara) and Nancy Dussault (Gorgeous). Thorson's Sara is sharp-tongued and gracious, snooty and self-aware, masking her neediness with elitism while breaking down in private under the strain. The actress's spine is so rigid that only her neck juts forward as she makes an exasperated point to her rebel daughter. When Mervyn convinces her to accept a much-needed neck rub, I felt my own spine relax. And Dussault is outrageously over-the-top as the sister who insists that moisturizer is the cure-all for one's spiritual ills. The comic climax of the evening belongs to her, as Gorgeous tries on her first honest-to-goodness Chanel suit.

Sisters succeeds as a Broadway hit, complete with splendidly timed comedy, amusing repartee, and Jewish stereotypes who manage to be vivid. Yet there are hints throughout of something more, and Wasserstein's refusal to probe deeper into the psychological terrors of her characters leaves me wanting. The playwright's women are restless and unhappy. Grappling with family and societal pressures, they waffle on the borderline between career and marriage, work and family, brains and beauty. They confront the impossibility of escaping their pasts. And they reveal their deepest fears, as when Pfeni confesses to Sara that she may be interested in the Kurdish women because "I need the hardship of those women to fill up my emptiness." But Wasserstein has yet to venture into the territory where her characters' fears and tremblings dwell A a place where loneliness and middle age, compromise and loss cannot be resolved through one-liners or shtick. Until she does, she may seek to ally herself with Anton Chekhov, but she'll remain related to Neil Simon.

With each successive play, Wasserstein's work grows more sophisticated, and she gains greater control over structure and subject matter. However, at this point in her career, a loss of control would be good for her. Wasserstein's yearning women could benefit from some raging into the good night. She might have to sacrifice universal entertainment for something more raw, but she'd get behind the glossy-magazine happy endings to the unexplored heart of the matter. Next time, Wendy, don't be afraid to go for the jugular.

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