THEATRE / Now don't make me out to be a cliche: Paul Taylor on friends and bad relations in Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosenweig at the Greenwich Theatre

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The Independent Culture
There are one or two archly dimpled references to samovars and never getting to Moscow in The Sisters Rosenweig, which is a bit of a damn cheek really since Wendy Wasserstein's Broadway hit has about as much genuine connection with Chekhov as The Golden Girls. True, there are three (Brooklyn-born, Jewish) sisters, one of whom - Sara, an international banker who lives in London - is about to hit 54. In honour of the occasion, this divorced tough cookie (played by Janet Suzman) finds herself joined at home by her two younger siblings.

Pfeni (Lynda Bellingham) is a successful travel writer who specialises in stories about the plight of far-flung peoples. You steel for the inevitable moment in the second half when she'll wonder outloud whether she's just running away from herself and battening off the miseries of others. You also know that these doubts will be instantly soothed away by sisterly reassurance: what Pfeni can't face up to, natch, is the sheer depth of her compassion.

It's roughly the same pattern with the other sister, Dr Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Maureen Lipman), a gabby radio agony aunt, professional Jewish interferer and mechanical niceness-dispenser. That blissfully happy marriage with the high-powered attorney back in West Newton, Massachusetts? Surely there is going to be some last act revelation about this? And indeed, bang on cue, comes the disclosure that the recession has put her husband out of work and that he spends his nights trawling bars looking for material for the (presumably hopeless) Chandleresque thrillers he writes by day. Once again, there's a comforting safety net in the form of a kooky detail: on these nocturnal research binges, he only drinks Diet Coke.

Anti-Semitism, Aids, the break- up of the Soviet Union, the predicament of refugees: all these issues are alluded to, but in that obnoxiously smooth and safe manner of a work that would rather die than risk offending Broadway matinee audiences. References to the homeless people under Charing Cross, for example, are dragged in via a dim-witted, farcical cock-up. Pfeni's camp lover, Geoffrey (Brian Protheroe), 'the internationally renowned director and bisexual', is due to mount that year's Homeless Benefit at Drury Lane. But he gets a couple of invitations crossed and instead of summoning the delegation of cardboard box dwellers to Sara's house, he sends them off to meet him for drinks at the Savoy. Quel tizz. It would be easier to adjust one's po- faced expression, of course, if the joke itself were remotely funny.

Geoffrey's bungling does at least have the effect of throwing his warm heterosexual Jewish-American friend Mervyn (Larry Lamb) in the path of Suzman's determinedly unapproachable Sara. Before she eventually hits the sack with him, she is adamant he should understand that just because she is an ex-patriate and assimilated beyond her wildest dreams, it does not mean that going to bed with him is the act of a lonely woman who is longing for home. In like manner, Gorgeous twitters at one point 'now don't make me out to be a cliche'.

But protesting that you aren't a stereotype doesn't make you less of one, if, as here, there's not enough in your character to contradict that perception. Ten minutes of Wasserstein's garrulously ingraciating dialogue leaves you feeling that you would sell your own sister for just a breath of subtext, a deficiency in the script that makes the cute nods to Chekhov all the more irritating.

Continues at Greenwich Theatre (Booking: 081-858 7755)

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