A small, tidy play comfortably adrift on a broad sea of jokes, skits and stereotypes, “The Sisters Rosensweig” astounds by its sheer proficiency. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, whose 1989 “The Heidi Chronicles” earned her a Pulitzer Prize, here woos her audience with familiar symbols; those characters up there might be you and I, if only we had their gift of speaking in one-liners. Now and then, to be sure, the shock of recognition turns into schlock.
The time is summer 1991 and the rumble of communism’s demise in Eastern Europe resounds faintly in the background. To the London flat of sister Sara (nee Rosensweig) Goode — successful banker and mother — come sisters Pfeni, international journalist, and Gorgeous, known as radio’s “Doctor Gorgeous” to her vast call-in audience in and around Boston.
They are there to celebrate Sara’s 54th birthday, and to air and redefine their individual treasuries of blocks and hangups.
Sara (Mariette Hartley, in the role Jane Alexander created on Broadway) is cocooned in Jewish denial; she erupts in fury when Gorgeous insists on lighting Sabbath candles.
Gorgeous (Caroline Aaron) has become so expert in spooning out the cliches on her broadcasts (fulfilling “the desperate need for hope and rebirth”) that she has come to believe them herself. Pfeni (Joan McMurtrey) is trapped in a self-deluding affair with gay Geoffrey (“a closet heterosexual”).
Comings and goings, spread across the evening-before and morning-after pattern of traditional living-room comedy, provide the slight substance of the play.
No question that the intruding dinner guest (Charles Cioffi), after a hot-and-heavy verbal sparring match with Sara, is preordained to bed her down. No question that the sublime self-assurance of “Dr. Gorgeous” will dissolve in a tearful confession of failure. (“Talking has always come easily to me,” she reveals in a rare moment of self-assessment.) Reality catches up with Pfeni and Geoffrey. “I miss men,” he confesses. “So do I,” is her stinging reply.
The admittedly strong appeal that has kept “Rosensweig” on and off Broadway for two years, now cloned in its touring company, is that of a well-honed, nicely modulated acting ensemble bouncing its wisecracks and cliches off one another with awesome efficiency.
Against Hartley’s taut, invulnerable Sara, Aaron’s blubbery, shtick-ridden Gorgeous seems an odd sibling matchup, but there is teamwork there, on a high level.
Director Daniel Sullivan’s split-second pacing doesn’t miss a beat. The flamboyant argy-bargy (gay, Jewish, teenage-activist) hits its targets.
John Lee Beatty’s single set, Sara’s grossly overdesigned living room with its cabbage-rose wallpaper that seems to shriek even during the silences, is gorgeously observant.
Pat Collins’ lighting may be more illuminating than the play itself, but a night at the Rosensweigs is, at least, a visit to old and familiar friends.