The Sisters Rosensweig

by Wendy Wasserstein

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Geoffrey Duncan
Geoffrey Duncan is an attractive forty-year-old man, an ‘‘internationally renowned director and bisexual,’’ and the love interest of Pfeni. He is also a business associate and friend of Merv, with whom he is organizing and recruiting the homeless to perform in a story-theater benefit. True to his theatrical roots, Geoffrey often bursts out in song and is observed dancing in his turquoise underwear in Sara’s kitchen at six in the morning. A performer as well as a clown, at Sara’s birthday celebration he kneels in front of her, announcing that he has been ‘‘dispatched twelve days on horseback’’ by her sisters to impart their birthday wishes for her.

Geoffrey met Pfeni at a ballet performance shortly after his male companion/lover leaves him for a chorus boy from Cats. In fact, Geoffrey gave Pfeni a stage name, stating, ‘‘if not for me, you’d still be plain and simple Penny Rosensweig.’’ His affections for Pfeni, and his intentions for the relationship, zigzag as much as their on-again/off-again romance. Geoffrey swears he’s faithful to Pfeni; however, in one moment, he’s assuring Pfeni they’ll be married soon and in another, he shuns the idea of domesticity for both Pfeni and himself for the sake of the arts.

Geoffrey is not at all reticent concerning his sexual orientation, admitting to Pfeni at one point that he is a ‘‘closet heterosexual.’’ On the pervasiveness of homosexuality, he exclaims, ‘‘if those tights could talk! Why do you think that band of merry men was quite so merry!’’ In the end, it is Geoffrey’s preference for men that leads to a break with Pfeni and, in turn, becomes a catalyst for Pfeni to find herself as a journalist.

Sara Goode
Sara Goode, the eldest of the three Rosensweig sisters and the mother to Tess, is an expatriate from the East Coast living in London who has left her Jewish-American past behind her. She is a woman of unusual character and intelligence. She not only is the first woman to be put in charge of the Hong Kong/Shanghai Bank, Europe, but has also made the cover of Fortune magazine twice. Of the Rosensweig trio, she is clearly in a position of great influence as the eldest sister, at one point even labeled by Gorgeous as the family ‘‘shtarker,’’ Yiddish for someone who takes charge. Pfeni also shows equal deference for her sister’s opinion by telling Sara, ‘‘there is no one I rely on in life more than you. There is no one I am more grateful to than you.’’

Where Tess is concerned, although an openly great admirer of her daughter, Sara is critical of her daughter’s choices, particularly in men. When Pfeni, in a show of support for Tess’s participation in the Lithuanian resistance, recommends places in Vilnius that she believes both Tess and Tom will enjoy, Sara responds sarcastically, ‘‘That way, Tessie, when they send the tanks in, you and Tom can take in a quick hamburger and a show.’’ Sara demonstrates an equally cool distaste for Tom by ridiculing him publicly, based on his seeming lack of personal depth. She tells Tess, ‘‘I just don’t know what you have in common with someone who dreams of selling radio parts.’’

According to Tess, Sara actively discourages passion in her life. This assertion is particularly evident in her interaction with Merv, a furrier and friend of Geoffrey’s, who inadvertently becomes a dinner guest at Sara’s fifty-fourth birthday party. Sara openly shares with Merv that she prides herself on being threatening to men, subsequently making every effort to discourage him from making any advances. In one...

(This entire section contains 2305 words.)

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instance, when Merv gets too close after the party by asking Sarah if she wishes ‘‘to connect’’ to another person, she deflects the question with insult and sarcasm. ‘‘How many support groups did you join when Roslyn died?’’ quips Sara, immediately apologetic for demonstrating such cruelty.

During her conversations with Merv, Sara shares that she has been divorced twice and is openly bitter because of it. She has, on occasion, gone so far as to characterize herself as being an ‘‘old and bitter woman.’’ But with Merv, Sara also demonstrates an equally vulnerable side by crying in front of him. Their relationship and the reunion of the Rosensweig sisters serve to open Sara’s heart once more, to her past, and to the possibility of romance.

Tess Goode
Named for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess Goode is a teenage idealist who finds life in London and her education at Westminster to be pretentious, and she longs for life in the States and, in her efforts to define herself, protests her mother Sara’s encroachment into her personal life. The defiance she feels for her mother is evident in the opening scene of the play, when she says with marked disdain and a show of defiance that she intends to be a hairdresser.

The struggle Tess has with her mother is indicative of teenage rebellion. Her boyfriend does not meet with Sara’s approval—nor does her choice to join the Lithuanian resistance. Tess also struggles to contain her own passions in situations in which both she and her mother share strong philosophical differences. In the case of Nicholas Pym, for example, she is exceedingly harsh in criticizing her mother’s choice of dinner guests. Responding to her mother’s distaste for Tom, she says she will tell her boyfriend ‘‘he’s not invited to dinner here tonight with the socially acceptable, racist, sexist, and more than likely anti-Semitic Nicholas Pym.’’ Further, she personally attacks her mother’s dinner guest on the basis of these values.

Tess comes full circle by the end of the play, successfully asserting a place in her mother’s life. She represents another generation of Rosensweig women embarking on the path of self-discovery. On some level, by watching Tess, the sisters also recognize in themselves that the rebellion against their own mother is no longer a luxury for them.

Mervyn Kant
‘‘I was a show biz and novelty furrier. Now I am the world leader in synthetic animal protective covering.’’ A business associate and friend of Geoffrey’s, fifty-eight-year-old Mervyn Kant, or Merv (also more affectionately known as Murf the Smurf, or Sir Murf), is a quick-witted, fashionable Jewish-American professional residing at the Savoy Hotel over Charing Cross station in London. Like Geoffrey, he is prone to playfully breaking out in song. At the same time, he demonstrates a deeply serious devotion to his Jewish roots, in his travels to Budapest with the American-Jewish Congress or to Ireland to have lunch with the Rabbi of Dublin.

Merv’s strongest qualities, perhaps born of life experience, hinge on his sense of courtesy. He shows a genuine interest in others and is often respectful to a fault. He decidedly demonstrates patience and tolerance in his encounters with Gorgeous, who endlessly prattles on to him when they are initially introdced, and is unaffected when she insists on calling him Merlin, even after she has taken the time to ask Merv his name. Sensitive and supportive, Merv also acknowledges Tess’s passion for the Baltics by offering her facts about Vilnius related to her own Jewish heritage.

From the outset of the play, it is clear that Merv has more than a passing romantic interest in Sara. As the play progresses, Merv proves to be the one person, apart from Sara’s sisters, who is able to chip away at Sara’s chilly exterior to uncover her softer, more passionate side, by sharing intimate details regarding his own personal life. In one instance, Merv inspires a discussion on their intertwining past lives in New York and strikes a chord with Sara by calling her ‘‘Sadie,’’ an endearing pet name Sara’s own grandfather reserved for her. Finally, he encourages Sara, repeatedly insisting that she is capable and worthy of love, regardless of what she may think and feel to the contrary. In the end, when Sara off-handedly mentions that life with her may be difficult, Merv responds, ‘‘there are real possibilities in life, even for left over meat and cabbage,’’ like him and Sara.

Nicholas Pym
‘‘The racist, sexist, and more than likely anti- Semitic Nicholas Pym’’ is a high-society Englishman and elitist on Sara’s birthday party guest list. He is quick-witted and glib, speaking with a natural, off-handed ease that betrays a lack of sincerity. Making idle dinner conversation, Nicholas proves to be insensitive to the point of being extremely offensive. In a conversation with Tess and Tom, for example, he responds to the notion of Lithuanian culture and people wanting to be independent of the Soviets, stating, ‘‘So does Kentucky. Think of Colonel Sanders and all his yummy little chicken pieces.’’

Nick is a foil to Merv, a character whose personal qualities contrast strongly with Merv’s, his haughty, elitist attitude clashing loudly with Merv’s jocular good nature. At one point, Merv challenges Nick, and the two get into a bit of a disagreement over the influence of European anti-Semitism. Tess favors Merv as a suitor for Sara, suggesting to her mother that Nick is ‘‘one of those weirdo English bankers who takes sixteen-year-old models to dinner’’ and afterward returns home, ‘‘puts panty hose over his head and dances to Parsifal,’’ a Wagner opera.

Pfeni Rosensweig
Pfeni Rosensweig is a forty-year-old eccentric journalist and shopping-bag-toting world traveler who has ‘‘dropped in’’ from Bombay, India, to attend Sara’s birthday party. Absorbed in her work, Pfeni is truly gifted, famous enough that one of her books has been assigned to Tess for her next semester at Westminster. She has no permanent emotional ties, other than to her sisters Sara and Gorgeous, and visibly struggles with intimacy issues and her own sense of identity. Says Tess of her favorite aunt, ‘‘My mother says you compulsively travel because you have a fear of commitment and when you do stay in one place you become emotional and defensive just like me.’’

Pfeni is trying to come to terms with the rather unconventional niche she has chosen to carve out for herself by fixating on a future with Geoffrey. She chooses to half-heartedly pursue a future with a wishy-washy bisexual director with whom she has been in a long-distance relationship for years. Her insecurities about herself and her life drive Pfeni to pursue a more permanent connection with her lover. In the end, her failed relationship with Geoffrey becomes a source of great strength. Pfeni embraces her talent as a gifted journalist after realizing that world travel and a career are what she has desired on a subconscious level from the beginning.

She is also a defender of her young niece Tess, whose defiance and desires mirror Pfeni’s at a very young age. Sara not only finds a source of support in Pfeni but, through her sister, also recognizes that Tess’s defiance of her mother is natural and in keeping with both Sara and her sisters’ desires when they were teens.

Gorgeous Teitelbaum
Dramatic, flamboyant, chatty Gorgeous Teitlebaum is the Rosensweig sister most consumed with being part of the status quo; her life is driven by appearances. She demonstrates this side of herself with Merv, for example, referring to her sisters as ‘‘such funsy people.’’ She is a self-proclaimed newage diva—a radio talk-show host acting as a pseudo- psychologist to the ills of American pop-culture. According to Gorgeous, she is much more than a cliché—‘‘I am what they call a middle-aged success story. And I am having a ball.’’ Based on this, she often acts as a yenta [meddler] in her attempts to advise her sisters on marriage, as well as the selfappointed psychologist for the family. She is also the keeper of Jewish religious traditions. Says Gorgeous, ‘‘remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,’’ ignoring Sara when she interjects or protests, and continues to pray over candles.

Gorgeous is not intellectually sharp in the way that her sisters are. She is often injudicious, speaking without concern for the facts, much to the consternation of her sister Sara. She is also terribly self-absorbed in her prattlings with Merv, whom she continues to call Merlin even after he has corrected her. But it is her appearance that Gorgeous hides behind to mask her vulnerability. Gorgeous, despite Sara’s impressions, is more thoughtful than she seems, if not preoccupied in her shouldering of family financial burdens. Her unbridled enthusiasm and the image she projects of someone who cannot easily be rattled prove to surprise her sisters when she gives them the news that her husband’s career is in shambles. As a result, her family sees a completely different side of Gorgeous and, taking a lesson from her, each sister realizes her own shortsightedness.

Tom Valiunus
Tom Valiunus is Tess’s blue-collar boyfriend who is as passionate about the Lithuanian resistance as he is insistent on eating primary-colored foods. Tom’s greatest ambition involves opening a radio supply store of his own. He is as seemingly impervious to the conflict between Tess and her mother as he is to Sara’s dislike for him. Although Tom’s heart is in the right place, he is not so bright, and his clumsy interjections become a source of comic relief in the work. When he and Tess walk in on Gorgeous’s Sabbath prayers, for example, Tom asks of Sara and Gorgeous, ‘‘are you having a séance? . . . I love Stonehenge.’’ In another, when Merv asks Tess what goes with European nationalism, Tom clumsily replies, ‘‘American movies and CNN?’’ Dating Tom represents another form of rebellion by Tess. He is also a foil to Tess, illuminating her great intellect as a teenager by being, himself, both thick-headed and dull.




Critical Essays