The most touching scene in "The Sisters Rosensweig" comes when the eldest of the three sisters, the 54-year-old Sara, who goes by one of the names she acquired through marriage - the bland, WASPish Goode - comes to terms with her given name, the ever-so-Jewish Rosensweig.
The scene itself is quiet - a great contrast to the uproarious, witty tone of most of Wendy Wasserstein's play.
Sara is being courted by a Jewish furrier. At first, she is repelled because he is so blatantly Jewish and so comfortable about it, an affront to the essential thrust of her life, which as been aggressive assimilation.
But his warm humor wins her over, and their closeness is aided by an odd memory they share. He mentions a town in Poland where his grandparents used to vacation - the Palm Beach of Poland. It turns out her grandparents lived there. They both remember photos of the women of the town, in oversize dresses, with sparkling eyes that suggested an underutilized brilliance.
Sara's brilliance has been well utilized. She is an international banker, and chance brought her to that little Polish town, where her skills were needed "to put bread on the table of those who drove her grandparents away." Her presence - and the assistance she gave them - are a kind of triump over the ugliness of the recent past.
Aside from this victory, everything about her life seems an attempt to put her Flatbush Ave. roots behind her. Even her London drawing room, which John Lee Beatty has designed as glitteringly as if he were Cecil Beaton, reflects her desire to appear something other than a Jewish girl from Brooklyn.
But, after a night with the furrier, Sara senses that what she has worked so hard to discard is one of the few solid things she has. Also, she knows that, however hard she has worked, Jewish identity is not discardable.
The youngest sister, Pfeni, has, like many of her generation, secularized Jewish idealism in radical journalism. She has lightened up, doing travel writing, perhaps a result of her relationship with a bisexual director who specializes in frothy musicals. But when he leaves her, she returns to radicalism.
The only sister who has not forsaken her origins is Gorgeous, a quintessential yenta, though with a good heart. She has her own unhappiness, but a certain indomitable quality that may have to do with the fact she has no qualms about her identity.
Believe me, I feel deep (Jewish) guilt suggesting that Wasserstein's play, which has moved to Broadway with all its hilarity intact, has serious undercurrents. But, if anything, it now seems more focused and so the issues seem unmistakable.
Even the bisexual director seems more integral to the play, which is, in part, an homage to the cozy America of the '50s, in which Jews felt more at home than they had anywhere for centuries.
Jane Alexander makes Sara's transformation even clearer and more moving than she did uptown. Christine Estabrook make Pfeni a compelling figure, and Madeline Kahn remains brilliantly funny as Gorgeous.
Not all furriers could force Sara to reevaluate her whole life, but not for a second do you doubt Robert Klein could.
John Vickery is smashing as the director, Julie Dretzin extremely appealing as Sara's sharp daughter, Patrick Alexander wonderfully droll as her activist boyfriend and John Cunningham perfect as Sara's aloof London beau. Dan Sullivan's direction makes this play as thoughtful as it is comic.
Presumably to hardly anyone's surprise, Wendy Wasserstein's hit comedy, "The Sisters Rosensweig," has moved from its publicly-supported institutional mini-production at Lincoln Center's basement minitheater, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, to Broadway, where it was surely always destined.
Opening last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, one only wonders why it had to make it there on the wings of public subsidy and a not-for-profit production. Neil Simon should have it so lucky.
But whether the Lincoln Center theater should or should not devote its considerable energies to lavish new musicals, such as its earlier flop "My Favorite Year," and popular Broadway boulevard comedies should really only immediately concern the Lincoln Center theater's board of directors and, of course, its various funding sources.
Here, our only very pleasant duty is to welcome "The Sisters Rosensweig" to Broadway, record our renewed pleasure at what is one of the best commercial comedies to come our way in years, and to note whether any sea-changes have occurred in the journey from Lincoln Center to the Great White Way.
The play is a charming, old-fashioned drawing-room comedy sparkling with nicely literate one-liners, and revealing a lovely sense of character suffusing its people, its place and its time.
Set in London during that August weekend of 1991 when the Soviet Union was teetering on the revolution that was to turn it back into Russia, there are three sisters (intentional and, as totally undeveloped, somewhat pretentious shades of Chekhov), the eldest and most successful of them, Sara whose house it is, somewhat resignedly celebrating her 54th birthday.
The three uncommon sisters, an expatriate banker Sara (Jane Alexander), a local radio talk-show host Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn), and a travel writer Pfeni (Christine Estabrook), were born in Brooklyn, and are, during the course of this August weekend, about to explore their roots, both American/Brooklyn and Polish/Jewish.
The two men principally assisting in the voyage of discovery are a college-educated, widowed Jewish faux-furrier Mervyn (Robert Klein) and a swishy bisexual, internationally-acclaimed theater director, Geoffrey (John Vickery).
The play is great fun - at times quite thoughtful fun - and it has been nattily staged by Daniel Sullivan (a Wasserstein veteran and stalwart) while the acting is exemplary.
Some plays are meant to be seen twice or more - others make their deepest impression on a first viewing, and, as most people only see a play once anyway, this is absolutely fine.
Personally I found "The Sisters Rosensweig" not precisely a oncer, but a sort of one-and-a-quarterer. I wouldn't really have wanted to have seen it again - and didn't actually enjoy it so much the second time around (I really loved it the first time) although, and this is where the quarter comes in, I certainly appreciated the acting as much as ever.
The one major cast change is Christine Estabrook coming in as Pfeni, and she is as accomplished and delicious as Alexander and Kahn, which is saying a bundle, while Klein is as sweetly understated and convincing as ever.
The transfer, so far as I can see, is perfect; even John Lee Beatty's lush setting has expanded as to the manor born. And I am glad to note that this English household no longer receives a non-existent Sunday edition of the Financial Times, even though Geoffrey, the English director, still pronounces the Savoy in Savoy Hotel as if he were an American - but perhaps that merely adds to his bisexual internationalism.
"The Sisters Rosensweig," originally presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, has reopened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street, with minor script revisions and two new members of the cast, Christine Estabrook (as Pfeni) and John Cunningham (as Nicholas Pym, a pompous Englishman). Following are excerpts from Mel Gussow's review, which appeared in The New York Times on Oct. 23, 1992.
"The Sisters Rosensweig" is Wendy Wasserstein's captivating look at three uncommon women and their quest for love, self-definition and fulfillment. United by their sisterhood, they are as different as only sisters (or brothers) can be, as each tries to live up to an image imposed by her family. At the same time, each performs her own act of rebellion -- or is it penitence?
Ms. Wasserstein's generous group portrait is not only a comedy but also a play of character and shared reflection as the author confronts the question of why the sisters behave as they do. The immediate answer is that they are Rosensweigs and are only doing what is expected of them. The play offers sharp truths about what can divide relatives and what can draw them together.
The oldest sister is Sara (Jane Alexander), an overachiever, the only woman ever to head an international Hong Kong bank. Second is Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn), a triple threat as "housewife, mother and radio personality" in Newton, Mass. The youngest is Pfeni, nee Penny, a globe-trotting journalist. The three come together in London for Sara's 54th birthday. One of the show's surprises is that in a play essentially about women, the sisters are subtly upstaged by two of the men in their lives, characters enhanced in performance by Robert Klein and John Vickery.
The play is steeped in Jewish culture and humor, but the emotional subtext is broader. The sisters have been nurtured in a family in which heartbreak has been confused with heartburn. With effort, they arrive at a new understanding. For Sara, additional hope comes from a most unlikely source: a wealthy New York furrier (Mr. Klein) who in politically correct parlance manufactures "synthetic animal protective covering." In dealing with social and cultural paradoxes, Ms. Wasserstein is, as always, the most astute of commentators.
At the same time, the play has its imperfections. There is no need, for example, to keep saying that Sara is so intelligent; the character and the actress should speak for themselves. The flaws do not substantially detract from a play with wit as well as acumen.
As with the title character in "The Heidi Chronicles," each sister has difficulty with men. Those they meet seldom seem worthy of the Rosensweigs. It is in this area that the play is at its funniest and most observant, with Mr. Klein's faux furrier and Mr. Vickery as a flamboyant theater director. Both roles could lead actors into excess, but the pitfalls are assiduously avoided.
As written, and as played by Mr. Klein, the furrier is an unpretentious wise man who forces Sara to see herself as he sees her. Shrewdly, the actor performs the role straight, eradicating all thought of his background as a stand-up comic. Playing Pfeni's man of many moments, Mr. Vickery is both dashing and self-mocking, winning laughs with looks and pauses as well as with Ms. Wasserstein's lines.
As the expatriate, Ms. Alexander assumes an artful Englishness. Despite her admission of being humorless, she wryly observes her postmarital situation. In the course of the play, she reveals a vulnerability beneath the ladylike veneer. For Ms. Kahn, Dr. Gorgeous is the choicest of roles. Restlessly changing her costumes and interrupting conversations, she is a delirious combination of extravagant plumage and native intuition. Of the three, Pfeni is the most problematic. Given her eccentric life style, one would have imagined a more vivid personality. Patrick Fitzgerald manages to invest a young radical with a certain zeal; and Julie Dretzin (as Ms. Alexander's daughter) easily holds her own with her more experienced colleagues. On John Lee Beatty's tasteful town-house set, Daniel Sullivan leads the actors to play scenes for reality rather than for their comic effect.
Overlooking the play is the symbolic figure of Anton Chekhov, smiling. Although the characters do not directly parallel those in "The Three Sisters," the comparison is intentional. The Rosensweigs have their own dreams of reclamation by romance, of escaping to a metaphorical Moscow. Ms. Wasserstein does not overstate the connection but uses it like background music. For the play's two acts, the Rosensweigs (and friends) are entertaining company.
As the characters in Ms. Wasserstein's plays have become older, moving on from college to New York careers to the international setting of the current work, the author has remained keenly aware of the changes in her society and of the new roles that women play. In her writing, she continues to be reflexively in touch with her times.
Wendy Wasserstein's play has negotiated a fairly smooth transfer from Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse showcase to Broadway's Ethel Barrymore. Laced with plenty of laughs and expertly staged by Daniel Sullivan with a light touch, this highly commercial living-room comedy looks like a keeper and will undoubtedly enjoy an afterlife in London, L.A., etc.
That doesn't make this user-friendly meditation on assimilation and intergenerational family relationships any less glib. "The Sisters Rosensweig" will remain a disappointment tothose who hoped for something with a little more emotional heft from the author of "The Heidi Chronicles."
But first-rate performances and posh production values go a long way toward making "Rosensweig" palatable. In the former category, count Jane Alexander as Sara, the eldest of the three Brooklyn-born sisters, a hardened, London-based banker celebrating her 54th birthday; Madeline Kahn as middle sister Gorgeous, a Newton, Mass., radio personality and top girl in the Temple Beth-El 'hood; Robert Klein as Sara's unlikely suitor, a manufacturer of fake-fur goods; and John Vickery as a British director reveling in the success of his musical version of "The Scarlet Pimpernel."
Alexander and Klein have settled warmly and comfortably into their roles. At the Newhouse, both Kahn and Vickery buzzed with comic energy in the play's most flamboyant characters; now they seem to have been toned down somewhat.
In the posh production category, count John Lee Beatty's elegantly expanded Queen Anne's Gate townhouse, Pat Collins' airy lighting and Jane Greenwood's fine costumes.
As the globe-trotting journalist youngest sister, Pfeni, Frances McDormand has been succeeded by Christine Estabrook, who underplays in a performance that's too flat. As Nick Pym, Rex Robbins has been replaced by John Cunningham, who pushes just a bit too hard as Sara's smug sometime escort.