KPBS AIRDATE: March 20, 1996
If I were on the Pulitzer Prize committee, Wendy Wasserstein and her “Heidi Chronicles” never would’ve won. But I wasn’t and she did, and the rest is theater history. She is one of the most acclaimed woman playwrights in America, and that in itself is an accomplishment. She makes people laugh, and that is, too. The fact that she could be considered the female counterpart of Neil Simon is both a blessing and a curse. She’s funny, all right, though much less prolific, and she’s clever and literate, but she, too, isn’t known for great depth of character, plot or philosophy.
Usually, center stage is a neurotic single woman, a New York Jewish liberal, often a trifle overweight, bright and literate, professionally accomplished, lamenting a lack of men in a humorous but despairing way, while at the same time spending years figuring out how to make it without them. This is a thumbnail sketch of Wasserstein’s own life.
Like Simon, she can hardly let a real emotion or interaction happen without dissolving into an immediate laugh-line. Sometimes Wasserstein bristles at the comparisons. In one interview, she said, “Do his plays always have to be about boy geniuses whose mothers loved them too much? There are girl geniuses, too, and mothers who didn’t love them so much.”
Enter the sisters Rosensweig. Ranging in age from 40 to 54, they are still vying for family title of most brilliant and most gorgeous. That’s the legacy their mother left them. Now, several months after her death, the three have come together for Sara’s 54th birthday. Sara is the disaffected Jew in exile; a twice divorced, hugely successful banker, but a cold and isolated woman, she is living in London, desultorily dating a philandering, anti-Semitic Thatcher MP. Her middle sister, actually named Gorgeous, is a suburban housewife with a couple of kids and a lawyer husband, a pillar of the Temple, recreating herself as a radio shrink. Pfeni, the youngest, is a peripatetic international travel writer who briefly alights to resume a dead-end relationship with a renowned and flamboyant bisexual director.
Sara’s daughter, Tess, is involved with a low-class, political punker, who’s dragging her off to join the Lithuanian resistance. And into this social-political-personal battleground strolls Mervyn Kant, fake furrier extraordinaire. As each of the sisters reconsiders her life, Sara gets a chance at real love with the king of “synthetic animal protective covering.”
The play is Wasserstein’s best, quite touching at times, and there are moments between the sisters that are more than believable, with their lifelong competition, their mother-laments, their emotional similarities and distances.
The North Coast Repertory Theatre production is pleasant but not wholly satisfying. The play delivers more than the people. Everyone seems to be so self-consciously acting. The most natural performance is that of Paul Battle, as the spiky-haired kid. He looks perfect, and even though he doesn’t have many lines, they’re effortless and credible. Everyone else is working and pushing too hard. Director Nonnie Vishner hasn’t coaxed them into the right New York Jewish rhythms. The lines don’t come fast enough or funny enough. Backed by Marty Burnett’s fabulous set and draped in Bryan Schmidtberger’s spot-on costumes, we believe these sisters are gorgeous, but not brilliant.
Audiences are eating it up, and you may, too. You can just stay in your seat for the next show. With North Coast Rep’s one-two punch, “Jake’s Women” are right behind “The Sisters.” You can make your own Simon- Wasserstein comparison.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.