HOUSTON - Sue Mortenson lists her height and weight on her resume. How many actresses would reveal such intimate details? And how many actresses would do so when appearing in a Wendy Wassterstein play? The Sisters Rosensweig runs at Main Street Theater in Houston April 16 - May 17. Wouldn't the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist (for The Heidi Chronicles) be aghast? After all, her woman-centered comedies challenge cultural definitions of female beauty, among other misogynist viewpoints. "Well, I used to do modeling," Mortenson laughed. "I guess it's just a throwback." Besides, Mortenson wryly noted, she's playing the character Gorgeous.
"She's very proud of her body," Mortenson continued. "Gorgeous was always intimidated by her sisters, who are smarter. She's gotten by on her looks, identified herself through them."
The Sisters Rosensweig depicts three very successful but equally yearning middle-aged Jewish sisters originally from Brooklyn. Loyal to but critical of each other, the sorority gathers in London for a family celebration. Sara, the eldest, is a twice-divorced head of an international bank. Gorgeous, the middle sibling, a beautiful but insecure wife and mother in Massachusetts, has become the toast of the town as the host of a radio call-in show. The youngest, Pfeni, is a writer and journalist who has supplanted her Judaism. As the Soviet Union collapses, as high-fashion shopping ensues, as would-be suitors and others call, the sisters renew their bonds via Jewish humor and Chekhovian wisdom, discovering truths about identity, self-loathing, intimacy, and other forms of love.
"I think the sisters really, really do love each other. But they have issues with each other too," Mortenson stated. "They are wonderfully caring sisters but who have just gone their own way. Each is soul-searching; each has a bit of growing-up still to do. The play is a coming-of-age story, ultimately, even with the sisters' approaching middle age."
Wasserstein would surely agree. In fact, Wasserstein saw a scene of the Main Street production this past February, when she came to Houston as a speaker for a fundraising event for the Women's Division of the 1998 United Jewish Campaign, which took place to a capacity crowd in the Cullen Theatre of the Wortham Center. "We only had had four rehearsals," Mortenson recalled. "Wendy came backstage afterwards and pulled me aside and said, 'Gorgeous is a little overdone. And let me tell you, there are a lot of Gorgeouses in the audience today.' This was how I knew I was on the right track." Wasserstein further described the sisters this way, Mortenson said: Gorgeous is the practicing Jew, Pfeni the wandering Jew, and Sara the reluctant Jew.
"I happen to be one of three sisters," Mortenson revealed, and the age differences are about the same. "It's interesting to compare the dynamics." In the play, the sisters constantly dig at each other through the affection. "I've done the same thing just to hurt my sisters' feelings."
The Sisters Rosensweig plays at Main Street Theater in Houston April 16 - May 17. For tickets, $12 - $17, call (713) 524-6706
By Peter Szatmary