Can’t mistake Pulitzer-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s voice for anyone else’s. There’s a rich liquidity and a mature intelligence to her dialogue, no matter the play. She distilled, honored and validated women’s voices in a way few playwrights had prior to her time. Her death in 2006 at age 55 due to lymphoma complications struck a serious blow to American theater. In Charles Isherwood’s 2006 New York Times tribute article to Wasserstein, he quotes André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. “She was known for being a popular, funny playwright, but she was also a woman and a writer of deep conviction and political activism. In Wendy’s plays women saw themselves portrayed in a way they hadn’t been onstage before — wittily, intelligently and seriously at the same time. We take that for granted now, but it was not the case 25 years ago. She was a real pioneer.”
Feeling curiously dated, a tad adamant and shrill, but still making a valid case as a prime example of Wasserstein’s exceptionally fluid, comprehensive work with richly depicted, believable, characters, The Sisters Rosensweig, about three middle-aged Jewish American sisters in London, finds an ideal home in Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ current production. Wasserstein received the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre for this play, which opened in Seattle in 1992.
Maneuvering the CTD cast of regionally well-respected actors through the play’s predictable but smoothly executed arcs with deliberate snap, director Marianne Galloway demonstrates a thorough understanding of the playwright’s sophistication and nuanced character realization. As much as she allows the play’s humor to rise through natural situational development, Galloway underscores the seriousness of each female character’s life path. She makes it easy for the audience to get to know each woman, and characters are not sacrificed here just to get laughs. Wasserstein’s work feels almost choreographed it’s so solidly structured. With Galloway’s clear-headed direction and attention to every logical detail, the plot seems to unfold with casual spontaneity. (I’d like to see her direct Three Tall Women or The Little Foxes).
The cast forms a classy ensemble. The Rosensweig sisters, played by Marcia Carroll, Elizabeth van Winkle and Shannon J. McGrann, are as enmeshed, baggage-laden and bicker-prone as any three real life sisters could be. Never resorting to caricature, each actor displays her character’s singular eccentricity, balanced at all times by a powerful bond of sisterly love. Cassie Bann as eldest sister Sara’s daughter Tess gives every indication of falling into her elders’ footsteps with natural grace, free-spirited but respectful of the unique family bond. This play isn’t a feminist treatise; instead it’s a work that honors the power of feminine love and individuality. Director Galloway and her female cast members have captured this essence head and heart on.
Male characters, little more than foils and adornments as written in The Sisters Rosensweig, reveal an intriguing depth and substance they might never have found under the guidance of a less able director. They provide much of the play’s comedy. In a role absolutely tailored to his boyish charm, good looks and hint of effeminacy, John Venable earns the lion’s share of laughter as youngest sister Pfeni’s bisexual boyfriend Geoffrey. He’s an absolute hoot, manic, irrepressibly engaging, and ultimately unavailable. Geoffrey is unforgettable lounging about the set’s living room clad in little more than his briefs, so at ease with his body the audience can almost forget how much of it they are viewing. And forgive him totally for the “impropriety” of it. Randy Pearlman presents a smooth cobbled mix of blatant, clever salesmanship and honest adoration in creating eldest sister Sara’s unlikely suitor, the ‘faux furrier’ Mervyn. He could become downright annoying in a lesser actor’s hands with his relentless persistence. Pearlman under Galloway’s direction lets Mervyn’s kindness and decency shine through under non-ending verbosity and ubiquity. Laugh at him if you choose, but root for him to win Sara’s heart, too. Reg Platt reveals a scandalously believable prude with a prurient penchant in Sara’s unacceptable suitor Nicholas. Finally, Andrews Cope provides a hunky, rough-hewn, welcome contrast to the classier men as Sara’s daughter Tess’ clueless, working class boyfriend Tom, even if his accent wanders across dialects a bit.
You don’t have to be Jewish to feel the love and humanity surging through Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, playing at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas through March 7. You just need an open heart and a genuine appreciation for an intelligent, sophisticated play by a woman whose gift to the theater will continue to resonate long past her untimely death. Thank you, Ms. Wasserstein.
For tickets go to www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com or call 214.828.0094
PHOTO: l to r — Elizabeth van Winkle, Marcia Carroll, and Shannon J. McGrann