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THEATER REVIEW : 'Romantic' Wise a Decade Later : Wendy Wasserstein's work retains a freshness as a rueful comedy that contrasts the struggles of friends and raises issues of identity, achievement and social structure.

March 23, 1993|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

When Wendy Wasserstein's "Isn't It Romantic" opened at Playwrights' Horizons in 1984, the line that stood out was anti-heroine Janie Blumberg's statement to the nice young doctor who wants to marry her: "Marty, everything by you is much more simple than it has to be."

Nine complicated years later at the Pasadena Playhouse, where "Isn't It Romantic" opened Sunday, the line stands out again. Simple is something nobody can find anymore, let alone afford.

Does the rest of this not-so-light comedy by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Heidi Chronicles" (1989) and "The Sisters Rosensweig" (1992) still hold up?

It does, although "Romantic" has certainly acquired the patina of a period piece. It is, after all, the story of two twentysomething Ivy Leaguers lost in New York in 1983--Harriet Cornwall (Veanne Cox) the Gentile and Janie Blumberg (Wendie Jo Sperber) the Jew--and trying to make it in the decade when it was fashionable to believe you could have it all: husband, career, kids.

Not that Wasserstein didn't see the pitfalls even then. Harriet's careerist mother, Lillian (a distinguished Claudette Nevins), has a speech about the fact that no matter how much you may wish to have it all, something will give and you might as well start prioritizing.

But "Isn't It Romantic" is more focused on the dilemmas than the odds, and it retains a certain freshness as a rueful comedy about the price of self-possession under trying circumstances.

Janie and Harriet are best friends. Harriet is slender and stylish, Janie sloppy and plump. "You look like a Vermeer, I look like an extra in 'Potemkin,' " says Janie. Janie's parents won't leave her alone, Harriet's divorced mother sees her by appointment only. Harriet advocates the single life (given a career and an affair or three). Janie's tempted to escape making something of herself by marrying doctor Marty (Todd Merrill) and moving to Brooklyn.

Janie's Jewish parents behave stereotypically, driving her crazy to ensure her happiness. They call daily, show up unannounced, bear too many gifts. Mother Tasha (Beverly Sanders) is a self-styled "interpretive dancer," which is not exactly run-of-the-mill, but father Simon (Kenneth Mars) is your cookie-cutter businessman.

The pressure on Janie is to marry and raise a family. The pressure on Harriet is to do whatever she likes. Marty is Janie's escape hatch, the chauvinistic, slightly boring traditionalist who wants a mother for his children and a wife in the kitchen--a realm Janie rarely visits, if at all.

("You don't have to make anybody chicken," says her father in a surprise burst of support. "You were born to order up .")

In the end, Janie comes to her senses, or at least stands up for herself, choosing to follow her bliss by staying in her undecorated apartment and paint letters of the alphabet for "Sesame Street."

Harriet, meanwhile, who has emulated her mother and climbed up the corporate ladder (since no one pressured her to do so), rushes headlong into marriage with a guy she's known for two weeks--a reaction to the end of a dubious affair with a married cad in her office, the handsome Paul Stuart (Vaughn Armstrong).

Who stepped forward, who back and who's to say? One can be sure that, in the 10 years since they made these decisions, Janie and Harriet will have made a hundred more. By contrasting the struggles of these good friends, Wasserstein, with customary baited wit, raises issues of identity, achievement and social structure that are still looking for answers.

Jules Aaron's staging in Pasadena keeps things light and breezy. Sperber is a jaded rather than neurotic Janie, suffering her parents with a high level of compassion. One can second-guess that the relationship with Marty will not take, although Merrill plays the doctor as an almost palatable young man, lending proper weight to Janie's final decision.

There's another, more driven kind of loneliness in Cox's winsome and fully defined Harriet. Nevins plays her mother with a polish that allows us to catch an enlightening glimmer of humanity under the marble veneer, while Sanders and Mars are effusively earthbound as Janie's forgivable parents.

Armstrong cuts a dashing figure as the slippery Paul and Russ Fega masters a fine Russian accent as a cab-driver Simon briefly submits as a suitor for Janie. Not much more is required of the role.

Gary Wissman's double apartment set is more functional than appealing, but his New York backdrop puts us there. Technical values as a whole serve the production efficiently if not memorably.

This is early Wasserstein that remains pleasurable and wise.

* "Isn't It Romantic," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends April 25. $31.50; (818) 356-PLAY, (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Wendie Jo Sperber: Janie Blumberg

Veanne Cox: Harriet Cornwall

Todd Merrill: Marty Sterling

Beverly Sanders: Tasha Blumberg

Kenneth Mars: Simon Blumberg

Claudette Nevins: Lillian Cornwall

Vaughn Armstrong: Paul Stuart

Russ Fega: Vladimir

A presentation of the Pasadena Playhouse in association with Theatre Corp. of America Inc. Director Jules Aaron. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Sets Gary Wissman. Lights Paulie Jenkins. Costumes Nancy Konrardy. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Theresa Bentz. Stage manager Diana Blazer.

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