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Interview: In The Sisters Rosensweig, at Last, a Mr. Nice Guy for Jason Alexander

Alexander stars in this virtual production alongside Kathryn Hahn, Lisa Edelstein, and Tracee Chimo Pallero.

Jason Alexander
(© Tricia Baron)

Sara Goode is an American divorcée living in London, the first female to head a Hong Kong bank. "Dr. Gorgeous" Teitelbaum is a wife and mother who dispenses advice on radio to any who ask in Newton, Massachusetts. Pfeni Rosensweig is a globe-hopping journalist who settles for a bisexual Brit.

Put them all together, they're The Sisters Rosensweig, products of the same Jewish home and family values who've come to widely different places in life. And putting them all together is just what Wendy Wasserstein does in this, one of her best plays. The younger Rosensweigs rally round the super-successful first-born in London, as she eases herself through the angst of a 54th birthday. There are men along, too: Pfeni has brought along her Brit, "a closet heterosexual," and Sara rates the ardent attention of a rich New York furrier, Mervyn Kant.

The last-named is an odd, but welcome, role for Jason Alexander, who has just played him in a virtual reading of the dramady that starts streaming May 20 in the "Spotlight on Plays" series.

"Well, he's one of those guys — and I don't get to do them all that often — who's just sweet," he explains almost apologetically. "He walks in the door, he falls in love with the older sister, he's smitten by her, he's charming and consistent and funny — and sweet. He's not the most complex character in the world, and that's lovely. He's direct. Certainly, the character works beautifully in the overall picture of the show. It's nice thing just to play a nice guy every now and then."

Anna D. Shapiro, the outgoing artistic director of Steppenwolf, already directed her hand-picked cast through this virtual reading, and it's now in the lap of the gods. "How it plays, I have no idea," Alexander admits. "It is always a mystery with these Zoom readings. They play the way the editor puts them together."

"I can tell you it was a play where I was able to sit back and watch the ladies do their thing. There were many, many moments where — you know, with minimal rehearsal — they were wonderful. They were very touching, very funny. I don't know how I did. They did great." "They" are Lisa Edelstein (Sara), Kathryn Hahn (Gorgeous), and Tracee Chimo Pallero (Pfeni).

Zoom-wise, this is not Alexander's first time at the rodeo. "I've probably done three or four play readings during the Covid months," he figures. "There's much to love about it. Most of all, you actually get to feel like an actor for a couple of minutes. It's kind of like doing theater, and it has afforded me a chance to work with some wonderful people that I hadn't worked with before."

"In this particular case, I had a really lovely experience with Anna Shapiro, but it was very brief. When I took over for Larry David in Fish in the Dark, Anna was nice enough to actually direct me into the show, but I only had a couple of days with her — and I was really impressed with her. I've had directors who weren't helpful, but Anna is masterful. Getting with her and doing something with her was really a privilege. And the cast was, across the board, brilliant." (That would be John Behlmann, Chris Perfetti, James Urbaniak. and Kathryn Newton.)

The Sisters Rosensweig premiered off-Broadway at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater in October of 1992 and made an auspicious debut for André Bishop as artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. Four months later, it moved uptown to the Ethel Barrymore Theater where it put in 149 performances. A national tour followed. This virtual presentation is its first locally in 28 years.

Alexander caught the Broadway production and has some indelible memories of it. "I surely remember Robert Klein in the role that I'm reading. I remember Jane Alexander's Sara and Madeline Kahn's Gorgeous." Various awards groups remembered them as well: Klein was remembered by the Outer Critics Circle for an award, as was Alexander by the Drama Desk. And Kahn raked in every prize that wasn't nailed down (from the Outer Critics and the Drama Desk, topped by a Tony). Any Tony hopes that Wasserstein or director Dan Sullivan may have had were crushed by the first wave of Angels in America, subtitled Millennium Approaches.

What Alexander didn't remember was who was Pfeni. On Broadway, it was Christine Estabrook, who replaced the actor who originated the role off-Broadway. That performer now has more Best Actress Oscars (3) than anyone this side of Katharine Hepburn (4): Frances McDormand.

For his most famous role — George Costanza on Seinfeld (1989-1998) — Alexander was up for seven consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards and four Golden Globe Awards. For his one and only nomination as Best Leading Actor in a Musical (for Jerome Robbins' Broadway), he won a Tony.

Does he miss singing? "I don't do it a lot in New York. Before the pandemic, I had a fair amount of symphony bookings where I would go around the country and do a bunch of stuff with symphony orchestras. I don't miss it because I sing all the time. Nobody hears it except me and my family."

Are people ever surprised to find George Costanza works such long-haired venues? Alexander laughs at the juxtaposition. "If they only know me as George, they're probably shocked!"

New York is very much in his post-pandemic plans. "I'm not sure I'm allowed to talk about what I was just doing here in New York, but I just finished a nice bit on a TV show. Most of the stuff I have cooking right now is in the theater world. We're waiting for theaters to open up."

Does that mean he'll be coming back here soon? "Not on the stage but hopefully behind it. I'm supposed to be directing a couple of pieces, so we'll see if we can get them here."

Glenne Headly and Jason Alexander in Larry David's Fish in the Dark at the Cort Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)