SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Orange County Wendy Wasserstein fans who haven't caught up with "The Sisters Rosensweig" will go to the Camino Real Playhouse and see South Orange County Community Theatre's revival, and nothing's going to deter them.
Wasserstein is far from the best working American playwright--very far--but no American playwright has a more devoted following. (I have seen dozens of these fans at Los Angeles premiere productions, scripts in hand, following along during performances, like opera buffs of yore.)
It will make no difference to such fans that director Jill Forbath's cast reduces what was once an ambitious yet low-cal family epic into something even lower-cal.
Since Wasserstein is generally only as good as the cast speaking her words, "The Sisters Rosensweig" dearly needed the likes of Jane Alexander, Frances McDormand and Madeleine Kahn when it first appeared in 1992. Without this caliber of artists, the play just sits there.
With the star power stripped away, it's easy to see what the problem is. Wasserstein, feeling inspired by Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," places three siblings in the London flat of the eldest, Sara (Ann Raphael-Walker), while the Soviet Union is crumbling. Like Chekhov's family members, Wasserstein's are disconnected but kindly toward one another, intelligent but in a fog about their purposes in life.
On the surface, the Chekhov connection looks solid, but it soon becomes a mere literary device that ensnares all of the play's potential energy.
Chekhov used the ennui of life as the stuff of ironic comedy; Wasserstein doesn't know what to do with ennui, so her characters sit around, wander in and out of rooms or go shopping.
They're all together for Sara's birthday, but there's no point of crisis or gradual dramatic build to the play as there is in Chekhov. Like the sisters and friends of the family, it just stays in place.
Wasserstein wants to make a comic point about this stasis, but it's pretty empty. Sara's politicized teenage daughter, Tess (the interesting Jessica O'Brien), is itching to get to Lithuania with boyfriend Tom (Lane Kenney) to witness the ongoing revolution, while sister Pfeni (Lisa Gary) is more at home reporting on Third World strife. That they're stuck here makes for a good laugh, but they can leave any time they want (which Pfeni finally does).
And then there's the problem of caring. Gary's ability to bring quiet frustration to the surface does make us care for Pfeni, even though we know that she will never settle down with her on-again, off-again bisexual lover, Geoffrey (Aaron Charney).
They have a predictably hopeless relationship without any Chekhovian bittersweetness, but that's better than the unconvincing affair of Sara and Geoffrey's pal, Mervyn (John A. Razzano), who reminds Sara of the Jewish New York she long ago fled. We care even less for the third sister, Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Norma J. Morrow), a glitzy talk-show host who darts in and out of scenes like the third wheel she is.
The performances don't help us care, either, with Raphael-Walker critically miscast. She combines a thick, muddy voice with a bad habit for missing lines and turns the supposedly elegant Sara into an everyday creature that a Mervyn would have no interest in.
Razzano is nice and suave but without a heartbeat, while Charney has the best instincts here for both comedy and suggesting a rich offstage life for his character. Morrow is only lightly funny when she should make us howl, but Gary nicely conveys the desires of her wandering Jew. Dave Champagne does a fair impression of a British snob who pops by for the birthday party.
Forbath paces things well enough but hasn't pressed her actors to find inner emotional lives, shallow as they may be in Wasserstein's Chekhov pastiche. Forbath's set design includes the requisite bad wallpaper design that seems to exist in every English home.
* "The Sisters Rosensweig," Camino Real Playhouse, 31776 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Jan. 28, Feb. 4, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 10. $10. (714) 489-8082. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Ann Raphael-Walker: Sara Goode
Lisa Gary: Pfeni Rosensweig
Norma J. Morrow: Gorgeous Teitelbaum
Jessica O'Brien: Tess Goode
Aaron Charney: Geoffrey Duncan
John A. Razzano: Mervyn Kant
Lane Kenney: Tom Valiunus
Dave Champagne: Nicholas Pym
A South Orange County Community Theatre production of Wendy Wasserstein's play. Direction and set design: Jill Forbath. Lights: Phil Blandin.