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Expat or immigrant? There are unspoken (but heavy) ethnic and class implications behind calling someone one or the other—for one thing, no one ever affixes the prefix “illegal” to “expat.” The central character in Wendy Wasserstein’s play The Sisters Rosensweig, a Jewish-American banker living in London, comfortably falls into the expat category, but is uneasily reminded of the part of her identity that would have put her in the other, rather less welcoming, category a generation ago.
Or rather, she’s reminded of it by everyone around her. Many of Wasserstein’s plays revolve around women who “have it all” but are seemingly missing something in their lives. For Sara, a successful, middle-aged divorcee, content in her atheism and assimilation into broader gentile society, that something boils down to religion and a man. Or so she is informed, repeatedly, by her daughter, her two sisters, and above all her suitor, a jovial, more-kosher-than-thou lovefool unfazed by her repeated rejections. The Sisters Rosensweig dances entertainingly, although in the end disappointingly around the things she’s missing. The notion that Sara needs anything at all, indeed that everyone else knows what’s best for her, is deeply patronizing, and is presented as such. It’s also presented as being kinda true.
In Theater J’s production of this early ’90s play—with period-appropriate costumes (Guess jeans! 6×1 suits! Leotards!) by Kelsey Hunt—the Soviet Union is falling, and Sara can’t be bothered by her daughter Tess (whom she named after Tess of the d’Urbervilles—how’s that for assimilation?) to care about the plight of the Lithuanians. It’s unclear if the references to Lithuania are a running joke about its obscurity to Americans or an indictment of Sara’s apathy. Explaining too little and too much at once is a weakness of this play: A large portion of the dialogue either involves characters spelling out to the audience what makes other characters tick (“she’s the kind of person who thinks Harvard and Yale are second-rate institutions,” says Tess of her mother), or religious inside jokes (“Thanks for leaving the door open, I feel like Elijah”). But the banter improves soon, once Sara’s sisters arrive. Pfeni is a bohemian, globetrotting travel writer, and Gorgeous is a married, observant radio talk show host. The two of them disapprove of Sara’s bourgeois lifestyle, for different reasons, though mostly hound her for being happily single.
The late Wasserstein—a Yale grad whose ancestors never would have been let into Yale, whose grandparents were chased out of Poland (would that make them refugees? Migrants? Aliens?), a successful dramatist whose parents just wanted her to be a lawyer’s housewife—mined family history for her work. Which is why The Sisters Rosensweig feels at once both intensely personal and self-indulgent. It goes on too long. The characters make awkward remarks and then remark on how awkward those remarks were. Many of the stereotypes they embody—did Sara really have to be a Jewish banker?—seem to be there solely to allow them to comment on Jewish stereotypes.
When Wasserstein veers into issues of identity, she’s neither subtle nor delicate, but she’s at her best. Her Sara is a rich character, and an excellent Kimberly Schraf plays her with a cold self-assuredness that gradually gives way to affection and playfulness. The acting is strong all around, though weak spots are apparent in the shaky English and Scottish (or is it Irish?) accents of James Whalen’s Geoffrey, Pfeni’s manic, bisexual boyfriend and Josh Adams’ Tom, Tess’ punk boyfriend.
With Kasi Campbell’s direction, Wasserstein’s dialogue takes on a jaunty rhythm that dovetails well with the many musical references, from old Sinatra records to college a capella singing, which together give the family ensemble a more old-fashioned feel than something from the Blossom and Full House era. It’s a play rooted in history, and even when that history is mythologized, it’s inescapable. “Where did you come from, Sara?” they ask her. Sara accepts her heritage, but not without pointing out to her sisters that the place where they imagine they really belong, a Brooklyn of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the same conversation their ancestors would have had, every generation.
1529 16th St. NW. $17–$47. (202) 518-9400. theaterj.org.