Monday, January 30, 2006

'Uncommon Woman" Wendy Wasserstein Exits Stage Left and American Theater Loses a Bright Light

Wendy Wasserstein, one of America's most talented playwrights since she began writing more than thirty years ago,
died on Monday of lymphoma.

I always hoped I'd meet Ms. Wasserstein one day to thank her for setting me on a path of artistic exploration. Back in the 1980s she wrote her most famous play, The Heidi Chronicles. I read it long before I was actually able to see it. The play opens with Heidi Holland, an art history professor at a Manhattan university, discussing a painting in a dim auditorium. Soon the reader is transported in time to the 1960s where Heidi is somewhat awkwardly navigating a prep school dance. What captured me, however, were the moments before she yields to memory. With a painting by Lila Cabot Perry illuminated behind her, Heidi explores the themes inherent to the work of art. I'd studied art history as an undergraduate, and even as far back as high school, but it wasn't until I saw Ms. Wasserstein's fictional character bring life to what I perceived as a magical field of study that I realized I wanted to know the stories of art, and share those stories with other people.

It was a long time before that happened, and I perform that kind of function only in a semi-professional role as a staff docent at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., but I've always felt indebted to Ms. Wasserstein for writing such a captivating heroine who showed me I might realize my dream of making the study of art a large component of my life. There are a lot of obvious differences between Heidi and me. Temperamentally, and sexually, I'm much more aligned with Heidi's lifelong friend Peter Patrone, a somewhat melancholy, albeit adventurous and curious, gay man. But, Heidi, with her offbeat and engaging way of exposing what lies behind the surface of a work of art, strikes a cord in me. She reflects my interest in the kinds of objects that we hold scared. What I loved about her character, however, is that she never treated works of art as precious and untouchable objects with no relevance or context. In Heidi's case, she championed the works of female artists. The great and flawed character of Heidi Holland reflected Ms. Wasserstein's feminist interests by using artworks as tools for understanding the many contradictions, challenges, and compromises involved in being a woman.

I always wanted to thank Ms. Wasserstein for leading me to a field of study that continues to inspire and challenge me, for creating a character of complexity and humanity in Heidi, for revealing to me at a gay character—Heidi's friend Peter—who made being "gay" seem natural, and for making a world in her plays that was both current and nostalgic. I'll miss her contributions to the world of the theater—because, in fact, while I've written here only about Heidi, Ms. Wasserstein was generous in populating the stage with many fine and admirable characters; most of them, like Heidi, contemporary heroines.

Here is the obituary that appeared on the New York Times Web site this morning.

Wendy Wasserstein, Chronicler of Women's Identity Crises, Dies


Wendy Wasserstein, who spoke for a generation of smart, driven but sometimes unsatisfied women in a series of popular plays that included the long-running Pulitzer Prize winner "The Heidi Chronicles," died today after a bout with lymphoma, Lincoln Center Theater announced. She was 55.

Starting in 1977 with her breakthrough work "Uncommon Women and Others," Ms. Wasserstein's plays struck a profound chord with women struggling to reconcile a desire for romance and companionship, drummed into the baby boom generation by the seductive fantasies circulated by Hollywood movies, with the need for intellectual independence and a sense of achievement separate from the personal sphere.

Her heroines — intelligent and successful but also riddled with self-doubt — sought enduring love a little ambivalently, but they did not always find it, and their hard-earned sense of self-worth was often shadowed by the frustrating knowledge that American women's lives continued to be measured by their success at capturing the right man.

Ms. Wasserstein drew on her own experience as a smart, well-educated, funny Manhattanite who was not particularly lucky in romance to create heroines in a similar mold, women who embraced the essential tenets of the feminist movement but did not have the stomach for stridency.

For Ms. Wasserstein, as for many of her characters and indeed her fans, humor was a necessary bulwark against the disappointments of life, and a useful release valve for anger at cultural and social inequities. Her work, which included three books of nonfiction and a forthcoming novel as well as about a dozen plays, had a significant influence on depictions of American women in the media landscape over the years: Heidi Holland, the steadily single, uncompromising heroine of "The Heidi Chronicles," can be seen as the cultural progenitor of "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw. (Coincidentally, Sarah Jessica Parker, who starred in that HBO series, played a series of small roles in the original production of "The Heidi Chronicles.")

Ms. Wasserstein, who grew up in New York, recalled attending Broadway plays as a young woman and being struck by the absence of people like herself onstage: "I remember going to them and thinking, I really like this, but where are the girls?" Ms. Wasserstein would fill the stage with "girls" — a term she used with a wink despite taking flak for it — in a series of plays that pleased her loyal audiences even when the critics did not always embrace them.

"The Heidi Chronicles," her most celebrated and popular play, opened on Broadway in 1989 after receiving critical acclaim Off Broadway. It ran for 622 performances and collected the Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for best play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. The play, in which Joan Allen created the title role, toured nationally and was later filmed for television with Jamie Lee Curtis. Reviewing the play in Newsday, Linda Winer called it "a wonderful and important play. Smart, compassionate, witty, courageous, this one not only dares to ask the hard questions ... but asks them with humor, exquisite clarity and great fullness of heart." Ranging across more than two decades, "The Heidi Chronicles" was an episodic, seriocomic biography of an art historian seeking to establish a fixed and fulfilling sense of identity amid the social convolutions of the 1960's and 70's, a period when the rulebook on relationships between men and women was being rewritten.

Heidi's allegiance to her ideals and her unwillingness to compromise them for the sake of winning a man's attentions caused conflict with friends who chose easier or different paths. Looking around at her materialistic, married, self-obsessed peers two decades after the exhilarating birth of feminism, Heidi observes: "We're all concerned, intelligent, good women. It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together."

In the play's bittersweet final scene, Heidi has become a single mother to a new infant — a path Ms. Wasserstein would herself choose to pursue many years later, ultimately at great physical cost, when she gave birth to her daughter, Lucy Jane, at age 48 in 1999.

Ms. Wasserstein's next play, "The Sisters Rosensweig," brought the issues of ethnicity and religion into her conversation about the making and remaking of women's identities as it focused on three sisters with differing relationships to their Jewish roots. It opened on Broadway in 1993, ran for 556 performances and was nominated for a Tony Award for best play.

Less successful was her 1997 play, "An American Daughter," inspired by the harsh attacks on women in politics, which lasted only 89 performances on Broadway, though Ms. Wasserstein later adapted it for television.

Ms. Wasserstein's other plays were produced Off Broadway, and included "Isn't It Romantic" (originally produced, to mixed notices, in 1981 and revised in 1983, when it was largely acclaimed) and "Old Money" (2000), a time-traveling comedy about the well-heeled. Her most recent play, "Third," about a female professor who is forced to question her staunchly held ideas about politics and ethics, opened in October and was extended through December at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Ms. Wasserstein's abundant gift for comedy and her plays' popularity disguised the more serious ambitions underpinning her writing. "My work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy," she told The Paris Review in 1997, "and I have always thought, 'no, you don't understand: this is in fact a political act.' 'The Sisters Rosensweig' had the largest advance (for a play) in Broadway history, therefore nobody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it's about women."

When Ms. Wasserstein won the best-play Tony for "Heidi Chronicles," it was the first time a woman had won the prize solo.

Ms. Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 18, 1950, the youngest of four siblings. Her father was a textile manufacturer, her mother an amateur dancer. In addition to her daughter, Ms. Wasserstein is survived by her mother, Lola Wasserstein; her sister Georgette Levis, and her brother Bruce, the chairman of the investment banking giant Lazard and the owner of New York magazine.The family moved to Manhattan when Ms. Wasserstein was 11. After earning her undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1971, she studied creative writing at City College with Joseph Heller and Israel Horovitz. Her first play, "Any Woman Can't," found its way to Playwrights Horizons, then a small Off Broadway company, and was produced in 1973, shortly before she began to study playwriting in earnest at the Yale School of Drama. ("My parents only let me go to drama school because it was Yale," she told A. M. Homes in an interview for the magazine Bomb. "They thought I'd marry a lawyer.")

Ms. Wasserstein's career would be closely linked both with Playwrights Horizons, which under its artistic director Andre Bishop would first produce "The Heidi Chronicles," and with many of the artists she met at Yale, including the designer Heidi Ettinger and the director James Lapine, who remained lifelong friends. (Mr. Bishop left Playwrights Horizons to move to Lincoln Center Theater, which has produced all her subsequent plays.)

Ms. Wasserstein's classmate, the playwright Christopher Durang, was a particular friend; she used his introductory ice-breaker — "You look so bored, you must be very bright" — directly in "The Heidi Chronicles," and they collaborated on a revue for the school's cabaret group.

After receiving a master's degree in fine arts in 1976, Ms. Wasserstein returned to Manhattan, and essentially never left. Her first major success came quickly, with "Uncommon Women" in 1977, produced by the Phoenix Theater. Depicting an informal reunion of a group of Mount Holyoke graduates that dissolves into scenes of their college days, it was described as "funny, ironic and affectionate" by Edith Oliver in The New Yorker, who added, "Under the laughter there is ... a feeling of bewilderment and disappointment over the world outside college, which promised so much, and with their own dreams, which seem to have stalled."

The play, which was filmed and telecast on PBS's "Great Performances," was also an important breakthrough in the careers of the actresses Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz and Meryl Streep, who played Ms. Close's role in the television version.
Ms. Wasserstein's other writing included a spoof of self-help literature, "Sloth" (Oxford University, 2004), and two books of essays, "Bachelor Girls" (Knopf, 1990) and "Shiksa Goddess" (Knopf, 2001), eclectic collections that embraced such disparate topics as Chekhov, her sister's battle with breast cancer, and the life and career of Mrs. Entenmann, creator of a bakery empire and fosterer of much guilt. Included in "Shiksa Goddess" was an essay Ms. Wasserstein wrote for The New Yorker, as poignant as it was hilarious, in which she discussed the medical complications of her late-life pregnancy and her newborn daughter's early struggles.

"Although I remain a religious skeptic," she wrote, referring to the disorienting days following Lucy Jane's premature birth, "I had a kind of blind faith. I believed in the collaboration between the firm will of my one-pound-twelve-ounce daughter and the expertise of modern medicine. Of course, there was more than a bit of random luck involved, too."

Ms. Wasserstein also wrote a children's book, "Pamela's First Musical," which she recently adapted for the stage in collaboration with Cy Coleman and David Zippel, and wrote the libretto for "Festival of Regrets," one of three one-act operas presented under the collective title "Central Park" at the New York City Opera. She had also completed a libretto for another opera with music by Deborah Drattell.

Ms. Wasserstein also worked intermittently for Hollywood, although her sole produced screenplay credit was for "The Object of My Affection," a 1998 romantic comedy that starred Jennifer Aniston. Her first novel, "Elements of Style," is to be published by Knopf in April.

But the object of Ms. Wasserstein's deepest affection was always the stage, and her relationship with the theater permeated all aspects of her life. Her friendships in the theatrical community (and out of it) were wide and deep, and she generously gave of her time and resources to benefits of all kinds. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she later served on the Guggenheim Foundation board, and she also taught playwriting at several universities.

In 1998, seeking to help instill her love for theater in a new generation of New Yorkers, she personally instigated a program to bring smart but underprivileged students from New York's public high schools to the theater. In an essay about the program for The New York Times, she wrote: "As far as I'm concerned, every New Yorker is born with the inalienable right to ride the D train, shout 'Hey, lady!' with indignation and grow up going regularly to the theater. After all, if a city is fortunate enough to house an entire theater district, shouldn't access to the stage life within it be what makes coming of age in New York different from any other American city?"

The program, administered by the Theater Development Fund, has steadily expanded since Ms. Wasserstein first held a pizza party for eight students from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx after a matinee of "On the Town." Now officially dubbed Open Doors, it consists of 17 separate groups or more than 100 students chaperoned to a season's worth of theater offerings by interested mentors.

Of course Ms. Wasserstein's devotion to theater took its purest and most enduring form in her writing for the stage, which allowed her the freedom to explore the evolving lives of American women with a fluidity and frankness that befit the complex experience she was writing about. Although it was always laced with comedy, her work was also imbued with an abiding sadness, a cleareyed understanding that independence can beget loneliness, that rigorous ideals and raised consciousnesses are not always good company at the dinner table. But she shared her compassion among a wide array of characters, those who settled and those who continued to search.

"No matter how lonely you get or how many birth announcements you receive," a character says in "Isn't It Romantic," "the trick is not to get frightened. There's nothing wrong with being alone." The popularity of her work speaks for her ability to salve a little of that feeling of aloneness in her audiences with her deeply felt portraits of women — and occasionally men — seeking solidarity in their individuality, finding comfort in the knowledge that everyone else is sometimes uncomfortable with the choices they've made, too.

Photographs: top, Associated Press; bottom, Christine Lahti and Tony Shaloub in The Heidi Chronicles photographed by Peter Cunningham