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Sisters Acting

Pat Kirk

Sorority Sight: The Rosensweig sisters are played (from left) by Barbara Sammeth, Sheila O'Neill Ellis and Amy Resnick of the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

San José Rep and Wendy Wasserstein bring the Jewish family comedy up to date

By Anne Gelhaus

With The Sisters Rosensweig, playwright Wendy Wasserstein has effectively brought the Jewish family comedy up to date. While the play deals with many of the same issues as others of the genre, Wasserstein tinkered with the format for her 1992 play, not only by making the central characters women but also by making them middle-aged women who have found success outside the home.

Wasserstein also makes some subtle chances in her writing style. Her three title characters are introduced with minimal back story, yet her script dictates that they be almost fully realized from their first entrances. The trio of actors in the San José Repertory Theatre's production succeed in immediately fleshing out each sister and then giving her more depth and relevance as the play progresses.

All the action takes place at the London home of eldest sister Sara Goode (Sheila O'Neill Ellis), an investment broker with a Tokyo bank.

Sara has just had a hysterectomy, and her sisters feel compelled to visit her on her birthday. Having risen to the top of her profession at a time when banking was clearly a man's game, Sara seems resigned to the fact that her intelligence and position have driven men away.

She's developed an aloofness that lets her be the one to keep potential suitors at arms' length, but her vulnerability is just below the surface. Ellis does a marvelous job of showing the cracks in her character's veneer that allow Sara's warmth to come through. As her would-be lover, Mervyn Kant (Matt Gottlieb), remarks, "You're warm and cold all at the same time."

Amy Resnick also turns in a solid performance as youngest sister, Pfeni (nee Penny) Rosensweig. Pfeni picks up where the title character of Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles left off. She's an unmarried 40-year-old who has relationships with unattainable men--her most current one being with bisexual theater director Geoffrey Duncan (Charles Shaw Robinson), who put the "f" in her name--and keeps searching for a purpose in life long after she's actually found her calling as a travel writer/anthropological journalist.

All of Pfeni's hand-wringing could get really annoying except that Wasserstein, herself the youngest of three sisters, seems to have some empathy with the character and has written her accordingly.

In a way, Barbara Sammeth has the most challenging role as Gorgeous Teitelbaum, the middle sister who is saddled with the Jewish princess/mother stereotype. Sammeth's portrayal pays homage to these familiar characters, but she gives Gorgeous more than one dimension. Together, the three women paint an honest portrait of the strong bonds that make being sisters so special, and that alone puts the play in its own category.

The Sisters Rosensweig plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 5 and 9pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm and Wednesday, April 3, at noon at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $16.50-$28.50. (408/291-2255)

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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