"Isn't It Romantic" is a comedy that asks, "Is it possible to be married or living with a man, have a good relationship and children that you share equal responsibility for, and a career, and still read novels, play the piano, have women friends and swim twice a week?"
In one form or another, that question continues to pop up all evening long at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, where Wendy Wasserstein's off-Broadway hit opened last night. You see, Janie Blumberg -- a frumpy, wisecracking but essentially sweet Jewish girl -- and her best friend, a spick-and-span gentile named Harriet, have both moved back to New York. And both are resolved to land a rewarding job, meet the perfect mate and put meaning into their days and nights -- in other words, find themselves before they hit 30, which doesn't leave them much time.
Isn't that what their education, the women's liberation movement and Helen Gurley Brown prepared them for?
Wasserstein is anything but a cynic, however. Her comedy is gentle, wistful and, despite the underlying seriousness of the questions that her two heroines are asking themselves, fairly toothless. "Isn't It Romantic" ventures beyond the parameters of sitcom to tell its tale of shopping for a life in Manhattan, but not that far beyond. The writing is intelligent, although it stops somewhat short of being incisive; amusing in places, it is not exactly what you'd call shrewd.
The watery pleasantness of "Isn't It Romantic" may compensate some spectators for its absence of more vital qualities. As my mother used to say of the girl next door -- a creature neither pretty nor ugly, neither flamboyant nor withdrawn -- "But she's nice!" What didn't get said was that you also tended to forget her once she was out of sight. The same obtains here.
Actually, mothers figure prominently in Wasserstein's play. Janie's has all the usual concerns of a Jewish hen for her baby chick. She phones every morning to sing "Sunrise, Sunset" on Janie's answering machine, and thinks nothing of bringing by an immigrant Russian cab driver as a prospective mate for her daughter. But she also believes "a person should have a little originality," wears purple tights and tie-dyed tank tops, takes dance lessons twice a week, eats raw string beans and goes skating regularly with her husband at Rockefeller Center.
Harriet's mother, by way of contrast, is a successful executive, a cool celery stalk of corporate power with a discreet string of pearls around her elongated neck. She's harnessed herself to nonstop meetings by day, power lunches at noon and "The Rockford Files" at night. Life, she informs her daughter crisply, is a matter of choices and "having it all . . . is just your generation's fantasy."
One of the questions Wasserstein's heroines can't help posing is how much like their mothers they are fated to be. But if there are misunderstandings to be explored, there are no deep-seated antagonisms to be exorcised. The generation gap is, in this instance, a mere crevice.
In fairly short order, Wasserstein provides Janie and Harriet with boyfriends and that, of course, raises additional questions. Harriet gets entangled with a married man, a "sadistic" vice president at Colgate-Palmolive whose sadism, as far as I can make it out, consists mainly of braying inane jokes. Janie seemingly fares better, when she hitches up with an affable Jewish medical intern, who wants to love and protect her and, not incidentally, whisk her off to a kitchen in Brooklyn. Male chauvinism may be alive and well in Wasserstein's world. Like everything else, however, it is not particularly virulent. The crises in "Isn't It Romantic" spawn injured looks or brave shrugs, but nothing so lively as an outright confrontation.
When Janie finally decides to strike out on her own, come what may, Wasserstein has her dancing off into the New York skyline, Gene Kelly style -- a fedora on her head, a red umbrella in her hand and fluffy bedroom slippers on her feet. The ending doesn't provide the uplift that's intended. Janie doesn't seem to have been through all that much beforehand. Just a lot of moony dreaming and quiet fretting.
Director Amy Saltz has pretty much cast the play to type, which tends to confirm, rather than expand, its narrow contours. As Janie, Lisa Goodman is a likable dumpling who would be more likable, to my mind, if she made fewer cute faces and sat up straighter. Marilyn Caskey captures Harriet's well-starched WASP exterior, but can't prevent the character's discontents from disintegrating into whining. Dorothea Hammond amuses periodically as the eccentric Jewish mother (she thinks Nixon came out okay because his two daughters married well), but Halo Wines, as the board room mother, seems to be rummaging through the closet of her past Arena roles to find a tailored suit that fits. The subtlest performance is contributed by Scott Wentworth, who plays the nice-guy intern so deftly that it will take you a while to realize that his niceness is, in fact, a form of tyranny.
Patricia Woodbridge has designed the handsome decors in which this episodic quest for self-fulfillment occurs. And hovering above them is a smashing re-creation of the New York skyline, a paean in itself to Manhattan's multiple moods. But while the set is truly romantic, the play itself flounders betwixt and between. More than a snack, perhaps, it is not quite nourishing enough for a meal. It leaves the audience, like its befuddled heroines, stranded in no woman's land; Isn't It Romantic, by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Amy Saltz. Sets, Patrica Woodbridge; costumes, Mary Ann Powell; lighting, Nancy Schertler. With Lisa Goodman, Marilyn Caskey, Scott Wentworth, Dorothea Hammond, Ben Kapen, Halo Wines, Rudolph Willrich, Cristopher Hurt. At Arena's Kreeger Theater through June 16.