Wasserstein play lights up stage at New Jewish Theatre

Wasserstein play lights up stage at New Jewish Theatre

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The New Jewish Theatre opened its 10th season with an excellent, well-acted and directed production of The Sisters Rosensweig, by Wendy Wasserstein, a major theatrical talent whose brilliant career was cut short by her death in January of this year after a long battle with lymphoma, at the too-young age of 55.

In a remarkable theatrical tribute, the NJT is one of three local theatrical companies presenting Wasserstein plays in the near future, under the banner, “Wendy City.” The Heidi Chronicles, which earned both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Wasserstein in l989, will be presented by The Repertory Theatre Feb. 7 through March 4, and An American Daugther will be presented by the Orange Girls in July at the Center of Creative Arts in University City.

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Of the three major works being produced locally, NJT’s production of The Sisters Rosensweig is perhaps the most appropriate for a specifically Jewish venue, because the struggles of the three sisters in the play reflect Wasserstein’s own conflicted journey regarding her Jewish identity.

“In presenting The Sisters Rosensweig, the New Jewish Theatre finds Wendy Wasserstein examining her own Jewish roots,” states the NJT production notes. “Much of the story mirrors her own experience as a Brooklyn-born Jewish woman.”

In the play itself, Sarah “Sadie” Rosensweig Goode, convincingly portrayed by Kari Ely, an experienced and accomplished actress, is clearly the dominant character. Transplanted to London with her free-spirited daughter Tess (Colleen Backer, who is well-cast), Sarah is hosting a birthday party with her two sisters. Pfeni Rosensweig (Liz Hopefl), an underachieving travel writer who cannot stay in one place for long, and Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Lavonne Byers), a seemingly contented wife of an attorney, active in Jewish volunteer work in Newton, Mass.

The chemistry among the three sisters who alternate between loving themselves too much and power-tripping one another rings very true, and Ely, Hopefl and Byers each deliver believable and compelling performances individually and collectively. Director Milton Zoth handles the challenge of an often-crowded stage and a variety of strong personalities among the characters admirably.

Of the three sisters, Sarah seems at the outset to be most determined to purge her life of too many Jewish elements. She is dating a boorish British snob named Nicholas Pym (Richard Lewis), who is correctly criticized by Sarah’s sisters for his anti-Semitic remarks and attitude.

In The Sisters Rosensweig, each of the principal characters struggles with issues of identity, including religious, ethnic, gender and self-empowerment and the “necessary losses” which occur at each stage of life. Poignantly, Sarah, the character who most resembles Wasserstein, makes several references to a struggle with ovarian cancer, reflecting the playwright’s own valiant battle with lymphoma.

As is the case with The Heidi Chronicles, some of the material in The Sisters Rosensweig, which was topical and fresh when the plays were first presented, has become oddly dated, including frequent references to the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the theatrical world, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and several “politically correct” references by the rebellious Tess to feeling guilty about being “white and European.”

There is also some admirable acting by Terry Meddows as Geoffrey Duncan, the self-identified bi-sexual companion to Pfeni Rosensweig, Roger Erb as Tom Viliunus, the Lithuanian boyfriend of Tess and an especially convincing portrayal by Peter Mayer of Mervyn Kant, with whom Sarah has a brief romantic encounter which rings very true. The character Mervyn Kant travels with the American Jewish Congress and has a positive Jewish identity, and his relationship to Sarah forces her to confront some of her own haughty rejections of her Jewish roots.

Good work by production stage manager Kati Costello and a realistic set design by Dunsi Dai help to make the audience feel welcome in Sarah’s remarkable and lively salon.

The Sisters Rosensweig will complete its run at the NJT’s Sarah & Abraham Wolfson Studio Theatre in the Wohl Building of the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive on Dec. 17. For information call, 3l4-442-3283.