Sisterhood Is Powerful

Main Street Theater bills its current production, The Sisters Rosensweig, by Wendy Wasserstein, as the highlight of its season -- and for once, such self-promotion is absolutely right. This thoughtful, if subdued, production brings to the stage a quietly funny story about sisterhood, self-discovery and falling in love at middle age.

Back in 1993, when the play opened at Lincoln Center, Wasserstein argued that nobody in Hollywood was interested in a play about a "54-year-old woman who falls in love, who still has possibilities." With The Sisters Rosensweig she created not one but three middle-aged female characters, all of whom discover and reveal themselves as they struggle to get through a two-day holiday together.

Oldest sister Sara (Claire Hart-Palumbo) is turning 54. Because she's just gotten over some "female trouble" (involving her ovaries) and because she's alone, her sisters come visiting her home in London to cheer her up. Of course, a house full of grown-up siblings can be decidedly uncheerful -- especially when the siblings are as different as these three women are.

Sara, a "brilliant" international banker living in a posh London residence, is slowly fossilizing into an opinionated, hardhearted cold fish. She's everything you'd expect from a banker. With her hair sprayed into a Margaret Thatcher-ish helmet, her back implacably stiff and her mouth curled into an almost insipidly sardonic smile, Palumbo every bit embodies a woman who's endured one too many disappointments. Sara jokes deadpan that her second husband has had so many exes they could form a club with branches all over the world. And her almost-grown-up daughter Tess (Kimberly Sands-Galvez) is about to run off to Lithuania with her revolutionary boyfriend.

Tess wants to go to America, too. But Sara's so scared of the country she left behind, she argues that next to Oxford, Harvard and Yale are second-rate institutions. Sara wants more than anything to leave behind all the reminders of her Brooklyn Jewish identity. She even goes so far as to date an anti-Semitic Englishman, a white-haired upper-crust flake who only sleeps with younger women; outspoken Tess calls him "the Nazi." When a nice Jewish fellow -- Mervyn Kant, a synthetic-fur tycoon -- falls in love with Sara, she sends him on his way. Don Gardner plays Merv with warmth and affability, but Merv is too Jewish for Sara, too much like home and her mother, who's recently died, and all the boys she knew in high school. He's too much like the girl inside she's spent her life trying to avoid.

Sara isn't the only sister seriously stewing over her life and wondering who she is. The youngest, Pfeni (Rebecca Greene Udden), flies into London more lost than anyone. An international journalist, she's spent her time trotting about the world, writing frivolous hotel reviews instead of finishing her book on Afghani women and politics. She's in love with a fabulous bisexual man. Geoffrey (Joel Sandel) is smart and kind; he loves her; and he dances to show tunes in silk boxers at 6a.m. But it turns out that he's not quite as bi as Pfeni thought.

As Pfeni, Udden is perhaps a little too quiet, a little too meditative and sits a little too comfortably on the couch to be a woman who is always ready to get up and go. Also, this Pfeni seems much too carefully observant not to realize that Sandel's Geoffrey is more gay than bisexual. Certainly the other characters in the play seem to know.

The one who knows it best, Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Sue Mortenson), is the sister Sara thinks is vapid. But for all Sara's brains, she doesn't know that much about people. Gorgeous is the sister with intuition, the one who reads people. In fact, she's made a career of it. Back home in Boston, she's "Dr. Gorgeous," a suburban mom and lawyer's wife turned radio talk-show host; she gives advice on everything from Pfeni's love trouble to moisturizers. Mortenson plays the model-thin mother of four with all the soda-pop energy of a cheerleader. Gorgeous dresses in fake Chanel suits but knows how to accessorize -- and accessorize and accessorize. Of course, just like her knock-off designer suits, her suburban dream world turns out not to be everything it appears.

In fact, as with all well-made traditional plays -- and this is, in most every respect, a very traditional play -- each of the major characters experiences a reversal. By play's end, each sister turns out to be in the opposite predicament from the one that bedeviled her in the beginning.

Occasionally, the play seems a little too pat. The characters' reversals are sometimes too easy; the characters are perhaps a little too likable; and sometimes the play seems as if it were written for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, with the sisters hugging on the couch, singing old-time songs together and playing slap games with rhyming words, just like when they were girls. The problems they experience all turn out just fine in the end, just like on TV. The bad guy (remember "the Nazi"?) never becomes much more than a cartoon, though John Kaiser does a fine job with the English accent and with the overblown pomposity that's written in the dialogue for his character. It's the script that makes him so blithely insensitive that he jokes to a room full of Jews about the Holocaust.

Still, these are relatively minor infractions in an overall lovely production that becomes increasingly more engaging as it unfolds. The wit and intelligence with which this story is told is certainly worth sitting through a corny version of "Moonlight Becoming."

The Sisters Rosensweig plays through May 31 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Boulevard, 524-3622.


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