The Sisters Rosensweig

by Wendy Wasserstein

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The Sisters Rosensweig is something of a departure from Wasserstein’s earlier dramas. The play takes place in one locale during a single weekend in 1991, at a time when the Soviet Union is dissolving. The action is more limited than in Wasserstein’s earlier work; the play, though, is still a series of mixed-up encounters that are held together less by a tight plot than by a series of counterbalancing interactions.

The play follows the structure of Chekhov’s famous play Tri sestry (1901; Three Sisters, 1920). Like Chekhov’s play, it begins with the birthday party of one of the sisters, in this case the fifty-four-year-old Sara Goode. As in Three Sisters, the birthday gifts given are eccentric or inappropriate. Both plays take place not long after the death of a parent who has set goals for the sisters’ lives—the father in Chekhov’s play and the mother in Wasserstein’s. Like Chekhov’s play, moreover, Wasserstein’s drama is built on a series of arrivals and departures, fanciful monologues, rambling retrospectives, unlikely relationships gone awry, and absurd mishaps occurring at moments of tension. The play captures the Chekhovian view of a society on the brink of change and depicts a group of insecure people who are desperately trying to find a moment of happiness in a world that is falling down around them. Like Chekhov’s plays, The Sisters Rosensweig mixes comedy with a feeling of sadness and a promise of hope that lies somewhere in the future. Like Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, moreover, the play ends with a mother anticipating a brighter future for her daughter.

The characters in the play are eccentric but believable. Sara Goode, an American Jew living in London, is an executive officer with the European division of a Hong Kong bank. She has one romantic night with Mervyn Kant, a widower who has made his fortune in synthetic furs while retaining his Jewish roots. Pfeni Rosensweig, an international journalist who has set aside her work on the plight of oppressed women to write travelogues, accepts a marriage proposal from Geoffrey Duncan, a flamboyant, bisexual theater director who leaves her for a man. The third sister, Gorgeous Teitelbaum, a forty-six-year-old housewife who has become an amateur psychiatrist on a radio talk show, is taking a group of women from her temple on a tour to see England’s crown jewels. Pfeni has seen a relationship slip away, and Gorgeous has to go home to her unemployed husband, who writes mysteries in their basement.

Although the play is set against the backdrop of social and political upheaval, the larger social world is kept at a distance. Characters struggle with their identities, examine their life choices, and try to seize a moment of happiness. After the social activism they saw in The Heidi Chronicles, some critics were disappointed that Wasserstein had moved toward traditional drawing-room comedy. The Sisters Rosensweig, however, is consistent with her other plays. It is less a play about issues than a play about people.

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