Review: ‘Problems Between Sisters’ Puts a Spin on the Berserk Boys Club

When we first see Rory (Annie Fox) she is flaunting a septum piercing, cutoff jeans girdled by a rubber band, and a level of hygiene seemingly designed to repel anyone within her smell radius. She has hitchhiked her way to her aunt’s cozy cabin in Vermont, where her older sister, Jess (Stephanie Janssen), has been temporarily staying. Jess is also pregnant. And there the similarities ostensibly begin and end.

Whereas Rory takes pride in being a “transient outsider, raw and untrained,” in Julia May Jonas’s “Problems Between Sisters,” Jess is an emotionally Spanxed up, expensively shampooed and educated visual artist preparing for her first solo show.

Jess’s art dealer (Maya Jackson), visiting the cabin, is taken with Rory’s unorthodox “look” and, on the strength of zero pieces of original art, commissions a video from her. Rory, a lapsed multimedia artist, tries to rope her sister into helping her create a video “de-sainting the idea of the pregnant woman,” a project that may or may not involve nudity.

Cortisol-spiking chaos ensues.

Jonas’s play, directed by Sivan Battat at Studio Theater in Washington, was conceived as a “response” to Sam Shepard’s “True West.” “Problems Between Sisters” is one of five projected works in Jonas’s “All Long True American Stories” cycle, which reimagines canonical dramas by white male playwrights for “other people (mostly women).” Shepard’s 1980 play made hay of the fraternal rivalry between Austin, an Ivy-League-educated screenwriter, and Lee, a rough-hewed petty thief. After a producer greenlights an underbaked movie idea of Lee’s, the brothers attempt to write a passable script, only to dance a pas de doom.

The sneaky brilliance of “Problems Between Sisters” is that it doesn’t simply ask, “What if the brothers were sisters?” but rather the more complex question: “What if the sisters gave themselves permission to act as men do?” More precisely, what if women ceded control to their inner art monsters? The question has special resonance for Jess, who has toiled for 20 years to get that solo show.

Rory has a leg up on Jess in the chutzpah department and, as in “True West,” much of her badassery rubs off on her starchy sister over the course of the play’s fleet 100 minutes. A keyboard gets smashed, tables and chairs are overturned, food is spilled, weed is smoked and verbal hand grenades are hurled.

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