For all her sunny disposition, Wendy Wasserstein took a sticky uphill path in the creation of her plays. She used to write 'em in longhand into a bunch of spiral-bound notebooks, kind of like calculating geometry with her fingers instead of on the computer. Her methods may have been unorthodox, but you can't knock the result. The Heidi Chronicles, her story about a befuddled '60s female urbanite who later confronts the myth of the '80s superwoman, snagged a Pulitzer for drama and a Tony for best play in 1989.
The Sisters Rosensweig, a current Old Globe Theatre entry, came four years later. Like all Wasserstein's plays, it stakes its reputation on peppy dialogue and strong women's roles, and the Globe show capitalizes on both. Clearly, it's caught up in Wasserstein's flinty rejoinders and stock situations as three Jewish sisters gather in the London of 1991 for the 54th birthday of one of them. The gals will mull their identities amid lots of reflection on religion, romance, sexuality and nationality, and their tight interplay is well worth the effort to go watch.
But Wasserstein's characters aren't women so much as her states of mind about women and their search for themselves; that's why she always took great care to draw them so completely apart from each other. In this show, that disparateness gets lost inside director David Warren's glad-handing. He's got the right idea, but still, he's not advocating for Wasserstein so much as appropriating her script.
Sara Goode (Janet Zarish), a twice-divorced international banker and the birthday girl, will eventually discover the possibility for middle-age romance-and her two sibs will supply the backdrop. Pfeni Rosensweig (Deirdre Lovejoy) is a bohemian, world-traveling journalist just in from Mumbai; sister Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Jackie Hoffman) has thrived as a host in the rough-and-tumble world of talk radio. The three have risen and fallen on their own efforts, setting the proper example for Sara's fervent daughter Tess (an unremarkable Stefanie Nava). And as Wasserstein once reminded us, their fullness of being helped blaze a trail offstage.
"My work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy," she reportedly told The Paris Review, "and I have always thought, "No; you don't understand. This is in fact a political act.' The Sisters Rosensweig had the largest advance [for a play] in Broadway history. Therefore, nobody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it's about women."
That's the point. Too often, Warren treats the script as lightweight commercial comedy. Too often, the characters are extensions of their lines as they sacrifice Wasserstein's rich women-oriented sentiment. Too often, each scene feels paced and conceived like those around it, leaving little time for the characters to differentiate between humor and reflection. Too often, Alexander Dodge's scene design and Jeff Croiter's lights do cast that contemplative feel, making Warren's sitcom approach seem that much more out of place. Ever so minimally, this thing looks less like a Wendy Wasserstein treatise and more like a Neil Simon kvetch. And anything even remotely approaching Simon is thus inflicted with the kiss of death.
Wasserstein died of cancer at 55 in January. I thus recommend this show, but more for its posterity than for its artistic value. Wasserstein was a trouper and a superior women's advocate. And, man, could she fill a notebook. This review is based on the performance of July 21. The Sisters Rosensweig runs through Aug. 20 at The Old Globe Theatre mainstage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $19-$59. 619-23-GLOBE.
The cart's before the horse
The Actors Alliance of San Diego annual festival is local theater's closest thing to a trade event. It's the one chance to trot out the collective goods in a show of (and in an appeal for) community support. To that extent, all the plays-even the suckies-are worth seeing in this, the festival's 16th year.
But that's a big qualification. As with any trade show, not all the products will meet with unanimous decisions on their quality-and that's especially true here amid a slate of 35 shows involving more than 100 actors, directors and playwrights. The four-play schedule of July 22 didn't yield anything awful, although James Caputo's The Secret Royal Order of the Feminine Gender is highly under-written. Joey Landwehr's gritty turn in A Poster of the Cosmos wasn't half-bad. Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare, about an accountant whose dream thrusts him onstage in a series of big-name plays, worked all right (although director Robert Salerno's bold stylings could have been much bigger yet).
The Actor's Nightmare is a nod to every performer's bout with stage fright-so wouldn't it have made more sense for the Alliance to run this play at the very end of the event? The festival, after all, is about actors. And as the capper, this show might have made a more worthy commentary.
The festival runs through July 30 at the Lyceum space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. Single tickets $12-$18, Best of the Fest admission $16-$22, passes $50-$75. 619-544-1000 or 619-640-3900.
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