Review: ‘The Sisters Rosensweig’ at Theater J

There’s a strange sound erupting from the JCC most nights. The source is not burlesque or stand-up comedy—although there are elements of both—but a brand new production of Wendy Wasserstein’s award-winning play, The Sisters Rosensweig, which has audiences of all ages roaring with laughter.

The show, which opened to a packed house the other night, is one of those rare productions in which superb direction and staging are combined with pitch-perfect performances, a visually stunning set and costumes so clever that some of them function as sight gags on their own.

L to R: Susan Lynskey, Kimberly Schraf, and Susan Rome. Photo by Stan Barouh.
L to R: Susan Lynskey, Kimberly Schraf, and Susan Rome. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Most of the actors are veterans of Theater J, familiar to DC theater-goers for memorable roles there as well as all the other stages that make Washington such a vibrant theater hub.

The set-up is simple: three American Jewish sisters—all proudly “uncommon women”—meet in a London townhouse to celebrate the 54th birthday of Sara, the oldest, an international banker who has just recovered from a long illness. The sisters are followed by a parade of boyfriends, each one funnier than the last, and a couple of teenagers, Sara’s sophisticated daughter, Tess, and Tom, a drop-out with radical ambitions.

Kimberley Schraf, who plays Sara with acerbic wit and the arrogance that only a Radcliffe degree can convey, is by turns caustic and loving.  She’s so thoroughly assimilated that she nearly goes up in flames when Gorgeous, the uber-traditional Jewish wife and mother from a Boston suburb, decides to light Shabbos candles.

Gorgeous—or “Dr. Gorgeous” (it’s like “Dr. Pepper,” she explains)—is played by the hilarious Susan Rome, last seen here in the Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. In Rome’s hands, Gorgeous, who has somehow parlayed her prominence at her temple’s Sisterhood into a radio talk show, wafts from daffy sister to adoring aunt.

At 40, the youngest of the sisters, Pfeni—played Susan Lynsky—is probably the closest to being author Wendy Wasserstein’s alter ego. A peripatetic journalist, attracted to men and causes that are mostly unattainable, she is the most rueful and appealing of the three.

Her riffs with her sisters—singing, dancing, clapping, hugging—and joyously funny, serving as a counterpoint to the more acidic arguing.  Together, the three women exhibit a bond that is both tougher, and more touching, than their links with men.

Michael Russotto and Kimberly Schraf. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Michael Russotto and Kimberly Schraf. Photo by Stan Barouh.

But oh, the men! Michael Russotto, who plays Mervyn—also known as Melvin, Merlin and Murph—is marvelous as the ultimate New York Jew.  A furrier to the theater industry, Mervyn is a garmento with a college degree and a warrior against anti-Semitism.

Russotto is especially sharp when he is parrying insults with the virulently anti-Semitic Nick, who is played by a malevolent (and appropriately named) Edward Christian. When Nick remarks, disdainfully, on Mervyn’s colorful shirt—so typical of Jewish professionals, he says—Mervyn’s response is to say that it was bought with “a pound of flesh.”

Russotto’s brilliance as a clown—at one point pretending to have a cordial exchange with a hostess who has basically ordered him to leave the house—is matched by the flamboyance of James Whalen as Geoffrey, the theater director who is also urged to leave. Geoffrey  literally prances through the play with such glee that it is impossible not to laugh.

The only sober characters in the play are the teenagers. Tess, played by Caroline Wolfson, and Tom, played by Josh Adams, are both thoroughly believable as idealists, yearning to undo the British class system and save Lithuania from the Russians.

Director Kasi Campbell (a Helen Hayes Award winner) and Stage Manager Jeanette Buck, keep the characters moving at a wonderful pace.

James Fouchard has created a set that replicates the 1990s interior of a renovated 18th century mansion, complete with Queen Anne moldings and arched windows framing the window seats. Furnished in exquisite taste—as befits Sara, the Radcliffe Rosensweig—it communicates the ultimate assimilation of an American Jew into one of the classiest streets in London.

The costumes, designed by Kelsey Hunt, deserve star billing themselves.  Whether it’s Geoffrey dancing bare-chested in his revealing green underwear, Sara cooking in a white designer sweater (covered by a tres chic apron, of course) or Gorgeous, pathetic in her tacky plaid suits, every outfit speaks volumes, allowing the characters to project visual statements about their sexuality or pathos.

Harold F. Burgess II and Neil McFadden do wonders with light and sound respectively, charting the hours of the day and evening and providing wonderful snatches of music, ranging from childhood patter games to Frank Sinatra and a Radcliffe singing group.

Props aren’t usually funny, but in this case Michelle Elwyn has found the perfect items to make the audience roar. A really awful souvenir of India tells us a lot about Pfeny, who gives it to Sara. A huge decanter of Scotch sets the scene for the birthday soiree.

But—as Shakespeare said—the play’s the thing. And Wendy Wasserstein’s writing—for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award (for The Heidi Chronicles)—is the undisputed star of this and all the other plays she managed to complete before her death at the age of 55 in January 2006.

L to R: Susan Rome, Susan Lynskey, and Kimberly Schraf. Photo by Stan Barouh.
L to R: Susan Rome, Susan Lynskey, and Kimberly Schraf. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Theater J has chosen to mount this production now in order to mark the 10th anniversary of Wasserstein’s death.  Christopher Isherwood, drama critic of the New York Times, wrote in his obituary that her work, “while always laced with comedy …was also imbued with an abiding sadness, a clear-eyed understanding that independence can beget loneliness.”

Wendy Wasserstein.
Wendy Wasserstein.

As Wasserstein herself said, on many occasions, “The real reason for comedy is to hide the pain.”

There is a lot of pain hidden away in The Sisters Rosensweig.  But the comedy that covers it over is cathartic. I’m not the only one who left the theater with both a smile and the vestige of tears.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

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The Sisters Rosensweig plays through February 21, 2016 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

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