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THEATER REVIEW / 'ISN'T IT ROMANTIC' : Foibles of Baby-Boomers Generate Lots of Laughter : The Pasadena Playhouse production in Santa Barbara is consistently amusing, but rarely as moving as it should be.


In 1981, the ironically titled "Isn't It Romantic" introduced mainstream theatergoers to playwright Wendy Wasserstein's comic perspective on the self-absorbed foibles of the baby-boom generation.

A handsome Pasadena Playhouse production at Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre delivers a full complement of laughs with professional polish--but in the end leaves us wanting more.

The play centers around the parallel love lives of Janie and Harriet, two college friends who have returned to pursue careers in New York City.

Janie (Wasserstein's alter ego in the play) is played by Wendie Jo Sperber with all the sharp-witted neurotic intensity appropriate to a modern, Jewish--American, 28-year-old coping with life on her own for the first time.

A decidedly unglamorous heroine who by her own admission wants "very badly to be someone else without going through the effort of actually changing," Janie is beset by the pressures and incongruities of city life.

Her parents (Beverly Sanders and Kenneth Mars) are prone to running interference in Janie's life, from leaving off-key renditions of "Sunrise, Sunset" on her answering machine to bringing over eligible taxi drivers for her to marry.

Janie's dilemma is balancing the call of career and individual fulfillment against her developing relationship with Marty (Todd Merrill), a traditional patriarchal Jewish doctor with a knack for jokes that misfire.

Harriet (Veanne Cox), Janie's best friend, is an uptight, ambitious WASP scampering up the corporate ladder in unconscious imitation of her mother (Claudette Nevins), a top executive. Along the way, she's caught in a humiliating affair with a philandering co-worker (Vaughn Armstrong), who offers only intermittent company with no strings attached.

Both Janie and Harriet discover that their needs in life are very different from what they thought they wanted--all to the accompaniment of Wasserstein's characteristic barbed wit.

Evaluating a possible son-in-law, Harriet's mother dryly concedes, "He'll be all right for a first husband . . . " A tightknit ensemble, the cast delivers their punch lines with impeccable precision.

Still, something's missing. Wasserstein had more on her mind than just comedy when she wrote "Isn't It Romantic," but you might not know it from the staging, which too frequently borders on sitcom style.

A perfect example is when Harriet's mother tells her: "Your generation is absolutely fascinated with itself"--an all-too accurate observation from someone who lived through the Depression and World War II, when sacrifice and survival were more important than personal gratification.

Yet here the line is spoken while she's preening in a hand mirror, a choice not specified in the script, and one that makes her seem hypocritical and negates the difference in generational perspective.

Similarly, Janie's mother has a moment of potential character definition when she explains that she keeps pestering her children on the phone simply because "I miss them." There's no shift in weight or tone in her delivery to signal the sudden honesty poking through her brassy armor, and the line is all but swallowed up in her bantering style.

The missed opportunities for depth are so consistent and widespread that they can't be attributed to lapses in individual performances. Clearly, director Jules Aaron has made a decision to play the piece for laughs at the expense of its more complex elements.

As a result, "Isn't It Romantic" is consistently amusing but rarely as moving as it should be.


"Isn't It Romantic" performed through June 13 at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St. in Santa Barbara. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $31.50. For reservations or further information, call 1-800-883-PLAY.

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