This is the year for theater anniversaries. The Rep is 40; Stages is 20; now New Jewish Theatre has begun its tenth season. What an impressive success story. Over the years artistic director Kathleen Sitzer has managed to transform liabilities into assets. Although the shows are mounted on a postage-stamp stage at the JCC, New Jewish now manages to secure the services of many of the area's most imaginative directors, designers and actors. Often the gemlike productions are akin to watching behavior through the lens of a microscope. The singularity of the New Jewish experience has become something to anticipate. So it's especially disappointing that this diamond jubilee season is opening with a script that has been trumpeted as the genuine article but is little more than paste.
Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig takes place in a London townhouse, but it could just as easily be set in the London morgue, because this play is D.O.A. Wasserstein had the "pretense" (her word, though a more apt one might be "chutzpah") to liken this drawing-room soap opera to Chekhov's masterful Three Sisters. But in its inability to move beyond verbosity, in its insistence that all emotions be played on the line, thus precluding the actors from instilling even a hint of shading or subtext into the proceedings, this account of a family reunion among three middle-aged Jewish sisters from Brooklyn seems to be striving not so much for Chekhov as for the now out-of-date 1930s comedies of Philip Barry.
Chekhov's tragedy invokes a passion for life and dispatches death. But what is at stake here? Consider these burning issues:
Will the uptight Sara Goode (Kari Ely), the eldest of the three sisters, loosen up enough to trust her feelings for Merv (Peter Mayer), an intelligent furrier from the Bronx who has invaded her house for the most arbitrary and capricious of reasons?
Will Sara's journalist sister Pfeni (Liz Hopeful) marry the bisexual stage director (Terry Meddows) who doesn't love her?
Will Sara's rebellious daughter (Colleen Backer) abandon the family by flying off to Lithuania with a goofy freedom fighter (who on the page is not nearly so goofy as this production would have us believe he is)?
The answers to all these questions are predictable even before the play begins. Why? In part because Wasserstein's characters have no input into their actions; what we get here is writing rather than being. Wasserstein functions as a master puppeteer, pulling the strings of dialogue until it's time to neatly call it quits and send the audience packing with a touch of schmaltz. The script's inherent lack of drama is accentuated by the fact that all the important decision-making occurs offstage. We hear a lot about what went into the decisions, but the viewer sees precious little deciding. Instead we're supposed to be satisfied with a lot of onstage hugging and singing and straw-dog problems that are simply set up to be knocked down. Then at the end, of course, there's the obligatory family reconciliation. Didn't we see that same scene last summer in Daddy's Dyin' (Who's Got the Will?), and done in half the time?
The third sister, a brazen Boston talk-show personality named Dr. Gorgeous, doesn't have any urgent problems at least none that we care about, since she is restricted to discussing people we never meet. But Chekhov didn't write a play called Two Sisters, so there must be a third one here too. Gorgeous has been added to the cast as a comic decoy. Indeed, the success of Wasserstein's original 1992 New York production was mostly due to Madeline Kahn's CPR performance as Gorgeous. Here, too, Lavonne Byers makes the most of a showy role whose sole purpose is to divert.
Because the cast includes some of St. Louis' more talented performers, I wish I could report that this New Jewish staging rises above the script's glaring flaws. To the contrary, performers who have done impressive work heretofore mug and indicate their way through the evening in the most alarming ways. It's possible that the longer actors rehearse this play, the more lifeless they realize it is, so they tend to overcompensate. But it's disappointing that director Milton Zoth has allowed so much "acting" to creep in. It doesn't help. But then, it's hard to know what would.