BWW Review: Exceptional Acting Fills Theater J's THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG

"Are we people who are always watching and never belong?"

Such an existential question is asked by countless individuals everyday, and is at the heart of Theater J's exceptionally well-acted production of The Sisters Rosensweig. While aspects of Wendy Wasserstein's play come off as dated, it nevertheless brings comfort to those wrestling with societal expectations and struggling to discover their true identity and purpose.

Identity and the question of one's purpose are daunting issues. Wasserstein smartly sets the play in the home of London banker Sara (Kimberly Schraf). Her family - daughter Tess (Caroline Wolfson) and boyfriend Tom (Josh Adams), sisters Gorgeous (Susan Rome) and Pfeni (Susan Lynskey), and Pfeni's boyfriend/director Geoffrey (James Whalen) and his friend Mervyn (Michael Russotto) - are gathered to celebrate her birthday. James Fouchard's comfortable upper class British townhouse living room set creates a safe and open environment where the characters can freely speak their mind.

And a birthday provides the perfect opportunity for all the characters, especially the sisters, to explore the possibilities life has presented them. Additionally, the fact that Sara and Tess are American ex-pats living in London presents another unique aspect to their situation.

Parts of the play come off as antiquated and that's to be expected as the play turns 25 next year. Younger audiences may only be able to conceptually connect with Geoffrey's torment over losing so many friends to the Aids Crisis, for instance. Yet, while the play may center on themes of identity and purpose, the beauty in Wasserstein's writing is that The Sisters Rosensweig is ultimately a story of growth. That's what makes this such a captivating show to see.

Bringing that story alive, with great vibrancy is the exceptional acting of Schraf, Lynskey and Rome. Schraf anchors this production with a dry wit, sincerity and candor needed to tackle such a complex character. Sarah is a successful businesswoman with a caustic attitude toward love after two failed marriages. In her portrayal, Schraf is able to showcase Sarah's reservation towards love and her determination not to let the loneliness slowly engulfing her life defeat her.

Rome explodes onstage as Gorgeous, a role that won Madeline Khan a Tony Award. Wasserstein has given her the play's funniest lines and Rome doesn't waste the opportunity. She also doesn't let the humor overshadow Gorgeous' devotion to her family and the challenges she's facing.

Pfeni is the most unconventional sister and Lynskey brings a deep and nuanced performance to the role. With her portrayal, she's able to showcase the curiosity that has made Pfeni a bestselling author. But we also get to see how that individuality has challenged her as much as it's helped, and the costs associated with being unique.

At no moment is that greater than in the scenes with her bisexual boyfriend Geoffrey. Lynskey and Whalen display the intricacy of such a relationship beautifully. Whalen also goes full throttle in his portrayal of Tom's gratuitous success as a theatrical director, who seems unsure of what he wants from life.

The sister's may lament that there are not enough good men in the world; however Michael Russotto gives a phenomenal performance as Mervyn, Tom's furrier friend. If there's a good guy award in this production, Mervyn wins it by far and Russotto allows us to see why. His portrayal is a mix of charm and emotional determination that will have you routing for him. The romantic tango between him and Schraf is heartwarming and it poignantly underpins the plays themes of growth and identity.

Rounding out the cast is Wolfson, whose performance grows on the audience. It is not until the final moments do we really get to see the depth of her character and what it means to be a Rosensweig woman. Adams is perfectly suitable as her love interest and fellow want-to-be revolutionary Tom.

Edward Christian has a brief appearance in Act I as Sarah's love interest Nick. A former Thatcher-loyal MP, Nick doesn't attempt to hide his arrogance or contempt of others.

Kasi Campbell's crisp, clean direction has excelled at creating a family onstage. Adding to the ambiance is a certain sense of nostalgia which the play has gained in age, and which is supported by Kelsey Hunt's vintage nineties costume design. A constant stream of sixties pop tunes extend from the record player onstage. Neil McFadden's sound design then has music fill the theater, making us feel as though the audience is an extension of Sarah's living room.

The Sisters Rosensweig at Theater J is warm and comfortable, allowing for the play to succeed in its exploration of identity. More than two decades since its debut, the question of one's purpose and direction is as valid now as when it first opened on Broadway.

Runtime is 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

Photo: Michael Russotto and Kimberly Schraf. Credit: Stan Barouh.

The Sisters Rosensweig runs thru Feb 21st at Theatre J - 1529 16th Street NW, Washington DC 20036. For more information and to buy tickets please click here or call (202) 518-9400.

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From This Author Benjamin Tomchik