ISN'T IT ROMANTIC" at Arena's Kreeger Theater is a trite, "lite" comedy for the Sweet 'n' Low set. It's sweet and sticky and leaves an artificial aftertaste.
In a scenario baldly plundered from the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," playwright Wendy Wasserstein presents us with best friends Harriet Cornwall and Janie Blumberg -- an uptight, pretty WASP and a funny, earthy Jew -- who know (because the women's mags tell them so) that they should Have It All. Coffee achievers both, they're coping with Manhattan careers, marriage panic and the fear that they'll become their mothers as they near the Year 30.
Wasserstein has packed her play with trendy topics -- aerobics, answering machines, "personal growth" -- and New York in jokes, most of which don't travel well.
In her zeal to cram each line with brand names and Manhattan references, Wasserstein neglects her characters' development. All they do is worry and whine (or, in the case of Janie's family, kvetch) about what they want. Most of the scenes degenerate into dueling monologues, with the characters erupting into gaseous fits of self-scrutiny.
Wasserstein gets some good mileage out of playing the messages on Janie's answering machine. One of the more interesting characters is the eternally depressed Cynthia Peterson, whom we never meet. A pity -- her absurd sourness would be a welcome foil for the saccharine that passes for personality here.
As Janie, apparently an autobiographical stand-in for the playwright, Lisa Goodman tries hard to play a free spirited waif but employs a maddening arsenal of shrugs and winces. Marilyn Caskey is white bread and whiny as the underdrawn Harriet. As Harriet's mom, Halo Wines merely recreates the brittle businesswoman she played in the recent "Real Estate." And you want Jewish? Dorothea Hammond gives you armloads of stereotyped Jewish mama. The men have little to do but be insensitive boors, but Rudolph Willrich turns insensitivity into an asset in his creepily enjoyable performance as Paul Stuart, Harriet's reptilian beau.
Director Amy Saltz exacerbates the overall sitcom feeling, placing the players in static clusters, underlining scenes with obvious pop songs ("What's Love Got to Do With It?" screeches Tina Turner as Harriet lunges for Paul), and encouraging prolonged reactions, as if for a canned laugh track.
The evening's highlight is Patricia Woodbridge's set, lit by Nancy Schertler, which provides some stunning sunrises and sunsets over a mini-Manhattan.
ISN'T IT ROMANTIC -- At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through June.