Identity and Self The struggle many of the characters experience in grappling with their own identities—whether it be as a Jewish American (Sara), as an adolescent (Tess), or as a bisexual (Geoffrey)—proves to be the chief focus of the play. In their interactions with each other, the characters are able to rediscover and ultimately transform themselves spiritually.
Pfeni, for example, struggles to deny who she is as a writer. She continues to insist on a life with Geoffrey on one level but betrays her true desires on another. When Pfeni pushes for a commitment, Geoffrey suggests that perhaps they should consider marrying. Pfeni is quick to respond with several questions, including how they expect to have children when she is ‘‘already forty.’’ The answer lies in her untimely break with Geoffrey, which, instead of being a devastating occasion personally, proves to push her back in the right direction professionally, and she returns to Tajikistan to write. Says Pfeni of her own decision, ‘‘if . . . you make sure to fall in love with men who can never really love you back, one morning you wake up in your big sister’s house and where you should be seems sort of clear.’’
Memory and Reminiscence The process of recalling the past plays a pivotal role in the development of Merv and Sara’s relationship. In the case of Sara, it is a catalyst for change. Merv recounts the past in an effort to break through Sara’s icy exterior, and eventually he does so by evoking memories or images of her youth. Thus Merv is able to steadily chip away at her bitterness, proving to Sara that she, as much as he, still has a chance of reconnecting with someone in a meaningful way. Sara, in turn, is able to embrace a more youthful, spirited self, which has been overshadowed by bitter disappointment.
After Sara’s evening of celebration, an intimate moment alone with Merv sparks memories of the past for both of them. Merv reminds Sara of her beauty, sparking her to respond. Sara tells Merv that, although he cannot hope for a relationship with her, he has encouraged her to succumb to her youthful, carefree passion. Sara expresses this wish in her desire to relive the past in a night of lovemaking, longing to be Merv’s ‘‘Sonia Kirshenblatt at the Brighton Beach Baths.’’
Heritage and Ancestry The idea of heritage is explored on many levels by several characters. Some emphatically defend their culture. Lithuania’s struggle for independence is much more than a ‘‘pet’’ cause for Tom. His passion for the Baltics originates with his nationality. Tom’s reason for joining the Lithuanian resistance is obvious. He states simply, ‘‘my dad is from Lithuania. And me uncles and me aunts still live there.’’ The attraction Tess has to Tom is fostered by such convictions. At the play’s conclusion, it becomes clear that Tess is drawn to him because of his loyalty to his ancestry and his sense of heritage, aspects of self that she is actively seeking. Ponders Tess, ‘‘if I’ve never really been Jewish, and I’m not actually American anymore, and I’m not English or European, then who am I?’’
Merv deeply values his own heritage, as demonstrated in his participation in and travels with the American Jewish Confederacy. In a show of support for Tess and Tom, he acknowledges, ‘‘before the Holocaust, Vilnius was home to about 65,000 Jews.’’ This comment fuels a somewhat heated debate concerning anti-Semitism in Europe. Merv aptly demonstrates that the passion he feels for his heritage comes from as deep a place as does perhaps Tom’s participation...
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in the Lithuanian resistance.
The attraction Merv feels for Sara is also bound up in the idea of her Jewishness, as it relates to his own. When he looks into Sara’s eyes, he sees the spirit of his mother’s family. ‘‘When I look into your eyes,’’ he tells Sara, ‘‘I see those women’s strength and their intelligence.’’ Because of this he confides to her, ‘‘to me you are the most beautiful and most remarkable woman.’’
Intellectuals and Intellectualism The characters of the play pride themselves, and each other, on their intellectual prowess. Members of the Rosensweig family are as apt to discuss at the breakfast table the efficacy of the American educational system as they would a day at work— and often do. In this way, Wasserstein creates strong, powerful female characters who are able not only to stand up for themselves but also, in doing so, to prove they are as capable of rising to mental challenges as are their male counterparts, if not more so.
Certainly this ability is well demonstrated at Sara’s birthday celebration, where even Tess, Sara’s sixteen-year-old daughter, aptly demonstrates her knowledge of modern history. Wasserstein is careful to highlight Tess’s ability by juxtaposing the teens Tess and Tom. Whereas Tess can quickly and correctly respond to Merv’s questions, Tom’s contribution to a discussion on the Concert of Europe and the issue of anti-Semitism is completely flat, apart from providing some comic relief. When Merv asks Tess to explain what goes hand in hand with European Nationalism, Tom offers, ‘‘American movies and CNN?’’
Appearances and Reality The outward aspects of many of the characters’ lives do not always gel with the perceptions of those around them. Assumptions between characters lead to misunderstandings in the form of gross misperceptions. An exercise of judgment based on outward appearance often leads to comments that are simply inappropriate, if not just rude or hurtful. More importantly, in such gross misperceptions the audience is able to see, as well as to appreciate, that depth and complexity of character can be surprisingly elusive even to the most perceptive individual.
A good example of this is both Sara and Pfeni’s impression of Gorgeous. For a large portion of the play, Gorgeous sells herself as the happy-go-lucky, somewhat bubble-headed, babbling housewife who ‘‘has it all.’’ Her sisters, Sara in particular, chastise her for her artifice, her new-age mentality, and her airy intellect. To them, Gorgeous lacks dimension, but neither sister is prepared for the truth behind their baby sister’s façade. Gorgeous quickly turns the tables in a show of strength and character when she commands her sister to ‘‘put the phone down’’ when Sara decides to call Henry to ask him to buy her sister another pair of shoes. Sara has a difficult time accepting that her sister’s spouse, the HarvardT educated lawyer, is unemployed, insisting not only that he should be employed but also that employment for someone like him is inevitable. When she tells Gorgeous ‘‘maybe I know someone’’ who can get him a position, Gorgeous snaps, ‘‘you don’t know anybody. Henry isn’t even looking for a job. He’s writing mysteries in the basement.’’