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|A CurtainUp Review
Isn't It Romantic
By Miriam Colin
In the program notes for the Worth Street Theatre's revival of Wendy Wasserstein 1979 feminist comedy Isn't It Romantic, director Jeff Cohen links the play to Chekhov, a playwright whose work has figured importantly in his company's past. I beg to differ. Wasserstein's story about two young women caught up in the struggle of having it all -- all meaning career, family and children -- is worth seeing, or if you saw it before, seeing again. It is as an amusing artifact and a forerunner to the playwright's Pulitzer-winning The Heidi Chronicles,but Chekhovian it's not.
Cohen has given the twenty-year-old play an excellent unfussy production. (It premiered at the Phoenix in 1979, and a rewritten version surfaced at Playwright's Horizon 4 years later). With the help of set designer Lauren Helpern he has recreated Manhattan circa 1979 with a fantasy New York skyline backdrop and a few props His production overall captures the warmth, humor and sincerity that are Wasserstein's career hallmarks. In a stroke of smart marketing it also opened to coincide with Valentine's Day.
The two twenty-eight-year-olds who would like to be uncommon (remember Wasserstein's Uncommon Women?) are brought vividly back to life by Maddie Corman as Jewish Janie Blumberg, a parent-smothered frump and Susie Cover her sexy WASP best pal. The two friends may have different backgrounds but they share parallel problems and dreams.
The dramatic device that bounces us from scene to well-paced scene is the answering machine, dominated by a shower of messages from Janie's parents. A number of well-known actors lend their voices to other messages. There's not much surprise to the surprise climax, when Harriet, after rejecting her married boyfriend (Tom Wiggins) goes for the "having it all" gold with an impetuous marriage just as Janie bids goodbye to her nice Jewish doctor (Hillel Meltzer). The play does, however, retain a good deal of charm.
Like the now overly familiar answering machine device, the comic interchanges about the women's relationship headaches with parents and boyfriends have a decidedly period aura. Thanks to the performances by Corman and Cover , and the cast -- especially Jennifer Bassey as Lillian's mother who knows what it means to give up a career for marriage -- Cohen turns old-hat into enjoyable tongue-in-cheek nostalgia. He uses the dated references to give a historic aura around the production, complete with program notes that explain allusions to Tab and the likes of the diet doctor Herman Tarnower and his gun-toting mistress Jean Harris.
This revival gives us a chance to see one of our best known women playwrights at the cusp of her career. Sadly, and through no fault of Mr. Cohen's, it also makes us sad that Wasserstein's most recent play -- the lavishly produced Old Money (Our Review) at Lincoln Center -- showed so little of the promise evident in this early and more touching comedy.