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The sunshine girls

'Sisters' is a funny and deeply felt look at finding one's identity

Wendy Wasserstein's three sisters, unlike Anton Chekhov's, can go anywhere they want to. But as the wonderfully realized revival of ''The Sisters Rosensweig" at the Huntington Theatre Company makes clear, their freedom comes with a price.

Two of the three have escaped what they consider narrow Jewish enclaves, only to find rootlessness confining in its own way. The third is a Newton suburbanite who revels in Judaica but knows that there's something lacking in her life.

Sara is the oldest and smartest, but not necessarily the wisest, of the three. She has kept the name of the husband she divorced, Goode, and now runs the Hong Kong/Shanghai Bank in England. Pfeni, the youngest, roams the less-developed corners of the world, writing about the oppressed, but lately she's gone into a more lucrative form of travel writing.

As for Gorgeous Teitelbaum, she's been content -- seemingly -- to live the life of a well-to-do Newton resident, though she, too, has added ''a little sparkle" by becoming Dr. Gorgeous, a talk-radio advice dispenser.

Gorgeous is the one who has stayed rooted in her tradition, and the one that Wasserstein has the most fun with. Her eye-popping outfits and her Brooklyn accent tell you all you need to know about her unapologetic approach to life. Even when she goes to England, she takes the Temple Beth El sisterhood with her.

Still, she warns another character, ''Don't make me into a cliche," and Wasserstein doesn't. The playwright lists dizzily between the theatrical worlds of Chekhov and Neil Simon, and her great accomplishment as a writer is to find solid ground between the two. For all the hearty laughs in ''The Sisters Rosensweig," this is a deeply felt and often contemplative piece about finding identity and maintaining balance.

If equilibrium wasn't easy to establish in 1992 when the play premiered in Lincoln Center, it has only become harder.

Wasserstein has found soulmates aplenty in the Huntington production. The play hasn't dated at all, despite being set at the end of the Cold War, though it doesn't hurt to have friends like these to make sure that it doesn't turn into a period chamber piece. Director Nicholas Martin brings together a first-rate crew of designers and actors. The London living room is so sumptuously appointed by David Korins that it serves as a welcoming playground for all the characters while describing the tasteful but dry life of Sara, its owner. One could write a whole review, if not a thesis, on what Robert Morgan's astute and dapper costumes reveal about their characters. Suffice it to say that if Andrea Martin had seen how Morgan had decked out the ostentatious Gorgeous, she would have dropped whatever the conflicting engagement was that forced her to bow out of this production.

You might even think that the replacement Gorgeous, Deborah Offner, was Andrea Martin, the way she marches about the stage delivering deadpan zingers one minute and dissolving into manic mush the next. I didn't see Frances McDormand as the original Pfeni, but it's hard to imagine a better gypsy journalist than Mimi Lieber. I did see the road version that played at the Shubert Theatre in 1994, and Maureen Anderman, complete with Radcliffe accent, is an improvement over Mariette Hartley, though finding the warmth in Sara's closed-down character is tricky business for anyone.

In fact, the whole production is an improvement. Martin is a master of this kind of theater, where comedy and drama collide and actors need to be reined in from going to one extreme or the other. He also knows how to make a large ensemble cast relate as if they've been together in a repertory company for years.

The romantic relationships are the most contrived element of Wasserstein's writing. Mervyn Kant (Jeremiah Kissel) seems too unassimilated to be of much interest to a real-world Sara. Still, Kissel's strong performance, and the pair's lively theatrical debating, makes you root for them. Pfeni seems too self-confident to fall for Geoffrey, the bisexual director trying to go straight amid the threat of AIDS, though here, too, T. Scott Cunningham's funny performance, and many funny lines, are a plus.

In the end, there are too many pluses to quibble over the minuses, or whether ''The Sisters Rosensweig" is closer to ''The Sunshine Boys" than to ''The Three Sisters." Gorgeous is always looking for a ''funsy" time. She's found it at the Huntington.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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