Success hasn't changed Wendy Wasserstein

April 10, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

By almost any standard, playwright Wendy Wasserstein would be described as a success.

Her 1989 play, "The Heidi Chronicles" won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. Her 1992 Broadway hit, "The Sisters Rosensweig," was called "the box-office phenomenon of the season" by the New York Times; it recently embarked on an extensive national tour and will come to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.

Yet, the ebullient playwright, whose head of chestnut curls bounces in accompaniment to her frequent laughter, admits she still feels insecure.

"You find different places to be insecure. It's like a searchlight, so it goes wherever it needs to go," she explains with the same wistful humor that characterizes her plays.

Over afternoon tea at the Harbor Court Hotel, Wasserstein acknowledges that the Pulitzer "in some ways made me feel more secure, so it maybe enabled me to try something else."

What she tried was "The Sisters Rosensweig." A play about the reunion of three middle-aged Jewish-American sisters in London, is, in its own way, a daring endeavor.

"If I went to a movie studio and said, 'I want to do a movie about three sisters, and the oldest one is 54 and she falls in love with a furrier' -- I don't think so," she says.

Nor could this be described as a traditional subject for male-dominated Broadway. In fact, part of the inspiration for "The Sisters Rosensweig" was Wasserstein's desire to write a play starring three middle-aged actresses.

This objective harks back to her graduate school days, when the impetus for her thesis play, "Uncommon Women and Others," was her determination to see an all-female curtain call at the Yale School of Drama. Even today, she says, "There just aren't that many plays in which the focus is about women."

The genesis of "The Sisters Rosensweig" came when Wasserstein was working on "The Heidi Chronicles" in London ** on a grant from the British-American Arts Association. "While I was there I had this idea for a play about Americans abroad because I was an American abroad. And also, I think very specifically, being Jewish and self-loathing was important to me to write about. It was something I had noticed a lot in my own life and in others."

She had attempted to write about similar themes in a 1986 musical called "Miami," about Jews in that city in 1959. The musical "didn't quite work," she says. But an experience she had in connection with it increased her commitment to explore these themes.

"I remember one producer took us out after the show and said to me, 'Wendy, can't you make those people Irish?' " She replied, "Well, no, I don't think so."

The similarity between "The Sisters Rosensweig" and Chekhov's The Three Sisters" is not coincidental. Chekhov is Wasserstein's favorite playwright, and in the preface to the published script she acknowledges "the pretense of echoing those three far more famous stage sisters who yearned for Moscow."

The day she finished the play, she called her close friend and fellow Yale alum, playwright Christopher Durang, and kidded, "This was . . . a lot of effort just to prove to myself what a good playwright Chekhov is."

Nor does it seem coincidental that Wasserstein, 43, is herself one of three sisters. She willingly enumerates the superficial parallels between the Rosensweigs and the Wassersteins. Like the oldest sister in the play, the oldest of the Wasserstein sisters, Sandra Meyer, is divorced and was once a banker (she's now a public relations consultant). The script is dedicated to her.

The middle sister, Georgette Levis, was nicknamed "Gorgeous" as a child, and "Gorgeous" is also the name of the middle sister in the play. Georgette Levis, however, runs an inn in Vermont, unlike her counterpart in the play, who is a radio talk-show host. (There's also a Wasserstein brother, Bruce, a Wall Street merger and acquisitions mogul, who doesn't appear in the play.)

The playwright admits she was "terrified" of her family's reaction to the play. But she says, "They've been very nice about 'The Sisters Rosensweig.' "

She then launches into a favorite story about her sister. "Georgette took an ad out in some paper in Vermont," she begins, with glee. "It said, 'You've seen the play. Now meet the real Gorgeous. Come to the Wilburton Inn.' Priceless. Priceless."

As to the youngest sister, who is called Pfeni in the play, like the playwright she is also an unmarried writer. However, it is Pfeni's boyfriend, a British theatrical director named Geoffrey, to whom Wasserstein feels closest.

Her credo rings out when Geoffrey tells Pfeni: "People like you and me have to work even harder to create the best art, the best theater, the best bloody book . . . that we possibly can. And the rest, the children, the country kitchen, the domestic bliss, we leave to others who will have different regrets. Pfeni, you and I can't idle time."

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