Confectioner's sugar

Strong acting and clever dialogue carry this Stageworks production

You've heard the saying, "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down," right? Well, in the world of the theater, the opposite is often true: A spoonful of medicine excuses scads and scads of sugar. Or in other words, a few serious exchanges and a passing plotline or two on an important subject make an evening of Frosty Crunchpops seem not just tasty but nutritious. Call it the Kellogg's Theory of Dramaturgy: Add vitamins for legitimacy, then surround them with sweetened Loopflakes till the FDA cries Uncle.

The play in question is The Sisters Rosensweig, the late Wendy Wasserstein's Broadway hit that contains about 15 minutes of real substance and two hours of fluff. It's the story of three upper-middle-class sisters having a reunion in London on the 60th birthday of the oldest sister, Sara.

In this fine Stageworks production, we come to know each of the sisters as well as the men in their lives. There's Sara, general manager of the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, and Merv, the ethnic furrier who wants to restart her sexual generator. There's Pfeni, the peripatetic travel writer, and Geoffrey, her bisexual lover who's also a celebrated theater director. And finally there's Gorgeous, the vivacious talk-show psychologist, and her husband — whom we never meet — who has a would-be dark secret that's actually neither interesting nor very convincing.

Thanks to the three gifted performers who play these articulate siblings — Laurie Zimmerman, Rosemary Orlando and Eileen Koteles — the play gets by on acting and clever dialogue long before we notice that it has almost nothing to tell us. It's a light comedy of the sort that Jean Kerr used to write: technically competent and exceedingly unimportant. Even with the excellence of all elements of the production, it's hard, toward the end, not to be bored.

There are two plot elements that are worthy of our attention. First is the assimilationism of sister Sara, who has rebelled against her Brooklyn/Jewish roots to the point that she's an atheist living in England and doing her best to pass as an Englishwoman. As written by Wasserstein, Sara is cold and imperious and offended by hyper-Jewish Merv the Furrier and his Yiddish inflections.

When Sister Gorgeous lights Shabbat candles, Sara orders Pfeni to blow them out; where her other sisters see Merv as just what Sara needs, Sara herself tends toward Nicholas Pym, a conservative member of Parliament who's probably an anti-Semite.

The problem with this storyline is that author Wasserstein doesn't really investigate it. We never learn what turned Sara from her country and her religion; we never find out what's at the core of her intolerance; and we never learn what's at stake for her — how much she's emotionally invested in her English self, and what she stands to lose if she loses it. There's a fascinating play to be written about this vociferous expatriate; only Wasserstein hasn't written it.

The other serious plotline concerns Pfeni's love for a man who's torn between men and women. This problem is highlighted for a few minutes in Act 2 — it's mostly joked about before then — but whereas Wasserstein treated such a relationship at length in her screenplay for The Object of My Affection, here it's hardly brought to light before it's dropped and forgotten.

Other weighty subject matter doesn't even get five minutes: References to the fall of the Soviet Union never really add up; Sara's daughter's determination to go to rebellious Lithuania never pays off; Pym's conservatism, Gorgeous' psychologizing, Pfeni's wanderlust never truly matter.

What does matter, it seems, is snappy conversation and throwaway references to Wagner, Metternich and Kurdistan. As sitcoms go, The Sisters Rosensweig has a high IQ. Its ideal audience is the well-educated in need of an escape.

But the acting of the sisters is truly luminous. Best of all is Laurie Zimmerman as the intimidating Sara Goode (the last name comes from one of her marriages). Zimmerman's Sara seems so complete, so sure of herself, that you can't really imagine her making compromises for anyone. But there's more than that to Zimmerman's performance. She makes you feel how much she loves her sisters and her daughter, and how much she cherishes her life in Queen Anne's Gate, London.

Even though the play centers around Sara, it's Eileen Koteles as Gorgeous who steals just about every scene she's in — as she should, according to Wasserstein's script. Koteles' Gorgeous is a high-powered Jewish housewife who throws herself completely into everything she does, from leading a group of Jewish women around London to dispensing advice over the airwaves; she's silly and passionate and kind-hearted to a fault.

And then there's the superb Rosemary Orlando as Pfeni, a world traveler who doesn't know why she can't stay in one place. There's something somber in Orlando's performance, something serious and a little melancholy, and it makes a nice mix with Zimmerman's loftiness and Koteles' bustle. As Sara's daughter Tess, Cael Barkman is credibly sharp and self-motivated, and as the underwritten Nick Pym, Fred Zimmerman stands believably on the right of his hero, Margaret Thatcher.

I at first had trouble accepting Bill Karnovsky as Merv. He seemed to be trying too hard to appear and sound ethnic. But by the second act I found myself warming to his performance — and to Larry Buzzeo's as Geoffrey.

Anna Brennen's direction couldn't be better, and R. T. Williams has outdone himself with an upscale living room set that's about as attractive as anything the Shimberg Theatre's ever hosted. Robin New's costumes are unfailingly appropriate, from Tess' jeans to Nick Pym's suit.

In her introduction to the published version of The Sisters Rosensweig, Wasserstein admits that the play is her "most serious effort." Well, it's not her most serious result: The Heidi Chronicles is far deeper, and even Isn't It Romantic? has more to tell us about women's lives in the post-Betty Friedan era. But if your palate craves candy, this is the sweetest confection in town these days. And it features three stellar performances well worth experiencing.

You'll even bite into a few vitamins.

But don't be misled: They're only there for effect.

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