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Kvetching Up

A Daughter Tries to Get to Know Her Mother in Wendy Wasserstein's Funny/Sad Take On Love

Ken Stanek
Tony Colavito woos Lynda McClary like a grown-up.

By John Barry | Posted 11/26/2008

The Sisters Rosensweig

By Wendy Wasserstein

Through Dec. 7 at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Anton Chekhov always complained that the contemporary take on his work was a little too lugubrious--he would rather have the sense of humor that Wendy Wasserstein brings to the Three Sisters' scenario. While The Sisters Rosensweig isn't an adaptation, the parallels to his masterpiece are clear and intentional. Three middle-aged sisters, so few men, and so little time.

And in Sisters, first produced in 1992, Wasserstein approaches the question of loneliness and incompatibility with a carefully balanced sense of humor. It's somewhere between knee-slapping farce and chatty drawing-room comedy, with a little melancholia sprinkled in. She has a word for it that keeps popping up throughout the play: "funsy." And the fact that much of the play takes place on a sofa around a glass table, with a triplet of chatty and sometimes combative women, can't help calling to mind The View.

The Jewish roots bit is where Wasserstein and Chekhov part ways. Mixed in with Three Sisters is the story of an older woman whose résumé appears to have taken her a long way from New York, where she grew up. Sara Goode (Lynda McClary) is an alpha female at 54, with a teenage daughter Tess (Jessica Behar), and the presidency of a Hong Kong bank to her credit. In the process, she's left behind two husbands and, at least this is my impression, good riddance to them. She has one sister, Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Amy Jo Shapiro), a housewife, and another, the 40-year-old Pfeni (Lisa Hodsoll), who is a single travel writer with an Amelia Earhart streak. They've come to visit Sara in London for her 54th birthday.

The Fells Point Corner Theatre takes on the challenge of a production with a somewhat drawn-out expository first act. Wasserstein's play is filled with recognizable types, and, to be honest, it's a little bit of a yawner watching them stream into Sara's living room and take their positions. There's the idealist young daughter, the over-the-top Jewish mother, the gay theater producer (with a little hetero streak in him), and the WASP-y businessman. Not that Wasserstein doesn't have a good eye for characters, but you kind of wish that she'd just identify them as such and start the wheels rolling.

The anchor of this play, and the true highlight of this Fells Point production, is the relationship of Sara and Mervyn (Tony Colavito), a widowed furrier who is on the prowl for a new wife. It also is the dynamic that drives Wasserstein's vision of romance here: a light dance that seesaws from attraction to pushing away. The characters don't fall in love, but they wish they could.

Sara isn't easy to pin down, which is what annoys everyone else in her family. After three decades in London's financial market, her religious background and her family don't mean much to her. That makes things difficult for her daughter, who has been given the task of coming up with a biography of her as a school project.

McClary's poised Sara does Wasserstein plenty of credit. Sara is rootless, but she's also the leader of the pack. McClary finds a balance, offering a character who is firm and even stubborn but not abrasive. She's got some of the trappings of the English after being in the country for several decades, but they haven't erased her essential Jewish-American core. The relationship that McClary develops with Mervyn isn't all that different from the one she develops with the audience. She lets the layers fall off, but only as far as her character wants to.

As her paramour Mervyn, Colavito delivers a steady, understated intensity in a performance that is one of the production's highlights. If the other men are flakes or foils, Colavito's performance, even in the face of Sara's skepticism, holds his ground. With that, the play blooms into a hopeful, if not necessarily perfect, relationship that will probably outlast the third act. And that's the point that Wasserstein is making. In love, consummation is brief and closure is a myth. That's a little sad and a little funny--or, for lack of a better word, funsy.

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