Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, starring Madeline Kahn, Jane Alexander, and Frances McDormand, played off-Broadway in 1992.
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein
Director Daniel Sullivan.
The program title page for the off-Broadway production of The Sisters Rosensweig.
Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan, a college classmate of SCR Founding Artistic Directors David Emmes and Martin Benson and helmer of several SCR productions dating back to 1972, had been the artistic director at Seattle Repertory Theatre for 17 seasons, during which time he and playwright Wendy Wasserstein began a collaboration that endured until her death in 2006.
The first big success that Daniel Sullivan and Wendy Wasserstein had was The Heidi Chronicles, beginning off-Broadway in New York at Playwrights Horizons and subsequently moving to Broadway. Joan Allen played the title role.
Wasserstein followed that one with The Sisters Rosensweig. When she had written a short ways into Act II, the play received a reading at Lincoln Center Theater, and then went west for a two-week workshop in Seattle. Sullivan engaged a dream cast for his principals: Jane Alexander as Sara, Madeline Kahn as Gorgeous, Frances McDormand as Pfeni, Robert Klein (the standup comic) as Merv, and Jon Vickery as Geoffrey. Sara seems based on Wendy's corporate pioneer sister, Sandra; Gorgeous on her sister, Georgette; and Pfeni seems sourced in Wendy herself.
Anne Cattaneo, Wasserstein's former Yale classmate and best pal in the theatre, was her dramaturg.
"Wendy was perceived as outgoing and jolly, but that was a cover for her social unease," said Catteneo. "Even though she was a frequent and polished guest on talk shows, like Charlie Rose, underneath that savoir-faire she was never quite sure how to 'be.' Her plays was where she spoke her mind and her best writing came out of her own life experiences."
Sullivan recalled that in Sisters Wasserstein wrote in detail about her family, expressing profound love while also settling some grudges.
"Wendy often wrote out of hurt, or umbrage, anger. Sometimes it was a way of getting even for her," Sullivan recalled. "As in her life, there's a great sense of 'wanting' in the play."
Sullivan remembered it had been a long time since Robert Klein had done a play, but he had Merv's essence. "Wendy and Madeline loved him, and he went to school on those three actresses during rehearsals."
Both Sullivan and Cattaneo recalled with glee how Wasserstein "hit the ceiling" when Fran McDormand entered as Pfeni in earth shoes. " 'Pfeni's elegant! She's a world traveler!' Wendy just couldn't see her in those shoes," Cattaneo said.
While Wasserstein was interested in finding a shared life, she was never "called" to one.
"I never saw her really happy with a straight guy," Sullivan said. "She loved the camaraderie she found with gay men."
Perhaps the men closest to her were Andre Bishop (artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater and executor of her estate), legendary costumer William Ivey Long, the late director Gerald Gutierrez, and former National Theatre of Great Britain Artistic Director Nick Hytner—a theatrical quartet of incredible achievements.
Sullivan and Wasserstein continued working together on An American Daughter, a play that began as a one-act and expanded into a full-length play. The cast in a two-week Seattle workshop under Sullivan's direction included Julianne Moore, Liev Schreiber, Adam Arkin and Yale classmate Meryl Streep. The story of a "connected" political woman who becomes a major candidate ironically felled by not having served on jury duty, the play today appears almost modeled on Hillary Clinton, even though it predated her political career by years.
Wasserstein was ill and dying as she, Sullivan and Cattaneo collaborated on her final work, Third. As Wasserstein had tracked feminism through Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic and Heidi, she expanded into her own cultural and political background in her final three plays. Third tells of a 50-ish liberal woman professor who (not without cause) accuses a conservative male student of plagiarism, and in the process comes to face her own political and gender biases.
Wasserstein was the leading American female playwright of her time, and we can be grateful that she left a legacy of works destined for reviving for some years to come. We can also regret having missed the insights that would have come from years she was denied.
Learn more about SCR's current production of The Sisters Rosensweig.