Oy Story

With its current production, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company has managed to cram both comedy and tragedy onto the same stage. The comedy is Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig. The tragedy is that this nearly three-hour-long play is enormously unfunny.

Wasserstein's relentless comedy concerns a trio of sisters who gather to celebrate the 54th birthday of Sara, the phlegmatic middle sister. She's a wealthy American banker who lives in London with her grown daughter Tess, a political naif given to various causes. Sara's sister Gorgeous is a bogus psychiatrist with a phone-in show who's concerned that Sara's forgotten her Jewish roots. Pfeni is the youngest, a travel writer whose British theatre director boyfriend can't decide if he's gay or bisexual.

There's no need to warm up to the sisters Rosensweig. We recognize them at once, having already met them in every third-rate theatrical comedy about eccentric, disaffected suburban housewives. These are the kind of stage characters who are described as "kooky" in press releases and who one never expects to find in a play by a writer of any merit.

Wasserstein is such a writer. Her brilliant play The Heidi Chronicles took home both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer in 1989. And she's written several intelligent adaptations and a handful of lucid, funny plays (my favorite, Isn't It Romantic?, was given a handsome production by AJTC three seasons ago).

But with The Sisters Rosensweig, she fails. Her characters are archetypes whose stories are unresolved, and her exposition is as subtle as a fart joke. And while there's no doubting Wasserstein's comic gifts, she's using them here to bury issues rather than address them.

In fact, that's the real problem with this play: Wasserstein has taken on too many issues and gone no place with them. Besides raising and abandoning the question of Jewish identity, she similarly loads and unloads the breakup of the Soviet Union, the American recession, the plight of the homeless, and the obstacles of sexuality. Even a play of twice the length couldn't address all that.

Rather than addressing any of the questions she poses, Wasserstein buries them under thin laughs. Tess' politics are plundered, and her mother's angst is cured by the love of a good mensch. Sara gets laid, and presto! Her heart thaws and she embraces her Jewish heritage. She starts out a lion and ends up a kosher lamb stew. So much for feminism.

The other sisters have their own wildly predictable epiphanies (I'll bet you didn't know a Chanel suit could buy happiness) and everything else gets swept under a carpet of warm witticism worthy of Neil Simon on a bender. By the time the rest of the players had begun talking like TV-movie characters ("Love is love; gender is merely spare parts"), I was tired of watching the talented cast struggle this monster to the ground.

Director Jean Thomsen has loaded her stage with talented actors, and watching them fall all over themselves for the better part of an evening made the whole mess harder to look at. Not one of the principals was prepared on opening night; there wasn't an actor onstage who didn't blow his or her lines at least once, and most of them fluffed their dialogue repeatedly. No matter. Even four-star acting can't overcome the lack of substance in Wasserstein's script. The best news about this production is that many of the people involved perform so well that they overcome recent blunders. T. John Weltzien's striking set design made me forget all about the horrors of his Jeffrey set, still on display at 7th Street Theatre. And Tracy Hill's pleasant performance as Pfeni proves that she's a much better actress than a director (she was responsible for that frightening production of Oliver! last month).

Despite some good performances, the biggest laugh of the evening went to the geriatric, hearing-impaired audience member who shouted, "Oh! He's a fegallah!" when the bisexual character minced across the stage.

Fans of Neil Simon and anyone who enjoys reruns of Love, American Style will maybe want to wade through this overlong muddle. But theatregoers who prefer less cowardly comedy should sit this one out. Eventually, one of Wasserstein's other plays will blow through town, and we can enjoy what this gifted playwright has to offer when her plate isn't so full.

Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's production of The Sisters Rosensweig continues through Sunday, November 24, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.