Does it feel dated? Is Heidi still relatable? Can you dramatize ambivalence?
Well, yes, sort of, and maybe.
The subject is Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Heidi Chronicles, now getting its first Broadway revival in 25 years. Few shows, after all, were as successful in capturing a particular moment: when women who had grown up watching Father Knows Best, and later followed Gloria Steinem, were by 1988, (when Heidi reached the stage) wondering if they really could have it all.
Julie Salamon, who wrote an excellent biography about Wasserstein, (who died in 2006 at the age of 55) confessed she had mixed emotions when she heard a revival was being planned. "I was happy that her legacy carried on, but worried that maybe this wasn't the right play to bring back. Productions of it around the country are always haunted by the question, "Is it still relevant"? Actress Christine Lahti, who was one of the original Heidis in the 80s, shares the skepticism. "I think the production is in excellent hands, but it was such an important play for all of us back then. I don't want it to be just a funny historical piece."
Indeed, enjoyable as the production is, Heidi's chronicled life through the decades now plays as a slice of history that feels less important and more comedic. Rather than being "too late" in bringing it back, it may, in fact, be too soon.
This is not to say that women aren't still wrestling with equal pay, finding the right partner, and excessive parenting -- all issues that Wasserstein nailed in this show. (One of my favorite lines is about the woman too embarrassed to show up "because her daughter didn't get into Ethical Culture.") And it's not that our own daughters aren't asking the play's questions about relationships, politics, and what kind of people they should be. There is, after all, no time limit on "How will you use what you know, Heidi?'
Still, there are a few too many comments that skew passé. ("What do mothers tell their sons that they don't tell their daughters?" "Pretty soon you'll be burning bras!" "You're going to be a generation of angry women--the ones who open doors usually are.") One also may cringe a bit watching by-now overused projections, and hearing the predictable music (R-E-S-P-E-C-T) marking the decades. (Though anyone who ends an act with Sam Cooke has my heart) It simply may be impossible to do anything in bell-bottoms that isn't played for laughs.
The production's director, Pam MacKinnon, (whose last gig was the revival of A Delicate Balance) claims not to be worried that the play may strike many as a glib period piece. She acknowledges that when it was done originally, it was almost set in real-time for millions of us who were picking the wrong guys and flirting our way into the workplace. "But Wendy was so prescient and so personal, that the distance truly enhances and grounds it," the director insists.
There is no denying that Wasserstein wrote plays that resonated deeply with those of us who grew up twisting with American Bandstand in the 50s, protesting in the 60s, consciousness raising in the 70s, and then wondering who we were in the 80s. She was not an uncomplicated woman who, like Heidi, found her voice in the creative arena, (Heidi is an art historian), counted gay men among her closest friends, and ended up a single mom when un-partnered at the time of the ticking clock. (Her daughter, Lucy, is now 15) "Her life was filled with drama and plenty of heartache, but she had the comic's gift of finding humor in dark places," says Salamon.
It's highly possible that if Wasserstein were still with us, she would have insisted on updating her most successful work, or at least deleting some of its most striking clichés. Christine Lahti recalls that when she went into the production, it had already won a Tony and a Pulitzer, but both Wasserstein and the director, Dan Sullivan, were open to her interpretation. "I had the youthful audacity to ask them to re-think it," she says. "I wanted to explore the deeper subtext, which I believe lived beneath all the surface banter. I just sensed an outrage and a sense of betrayal and hurt, especially in the locker room monologue when she asks the other women, 'what happened? I thought we were all in this together.'"
Lahti was also concerned that one may walk away thinking the moral of the story is that Heidi finally feels fulfilled when she adopts a child. MacKinnon, in fact, went back to Wasserstein's original draft and restored two lines. Now, when Scoop (the man with whom Heidi has a long, rather unhealthy relationship) says, 'So it's a solution," she responds, 'No, it's a decision.' "I just felt that was so Scoop and so Heidi," says MacKInnnon.
The show's star, Elisabeth Moss, is less brittle than her predecessors, (Joan Allen was the original) and concedes that the challenge is not letting the witty repartee define the show: "It would be easy to allow this to become nothing but an incredible comedy," she says, "since Wendy Wasserstein deflected so much with humor. We are working very hard to keep it funny but real." As for the challenge of embodying ambivalence, Moss denies that is an issue. "Sometimes the choice is not to make a choice..or at least not at a particular time," she says. "Heidi feels strongly about what she does when she does it."
She says people similarly wondered if Mad Men, and her pivotal character of Peggy, "were too far back in time to be relevant." But that one reflects the way, way back, more than 50 years ago: revered by those who weren't even born then -- for its glamour and design -- and by those who were, for restoring some childhood memories. Also, its humor is subtle, if at all.
Yet another danger is that this production will be dismissed as a "woman's play."(The good news is most ticket buying is female-driven) It will always be Heidi's journey, but there is more of a bi-gender Boomer ring to it now. As MacKinnon says, "Both the female and male characters are improvising their way through their lives, taking advantage of what was in front of them." One of the key males, Peter, is played sensationally by Bryce Pinkham, but the very idea of the gay best friend has, frankly, been sitcomed to death.
What one mostly comes away with from The Heidi Chronicles 2015 is the undeniable and much missed wit and wisdom of Wendy Wasserstein. The work of American women playwrights is still largely relegated to Off-Broadway, as was Wasserstein both before and after this play, by the way. She always felt less than respected by the big boys and this week when the New York Times' main critic did not review the show, and the Wall St. Journal dismissed it rather rudely. Some slights die hard.
The truth is, no one has really taken Wasserstein's place. Tina Fey is currently working on a Broadway musical version of Mean Girls, along with budding playwright and lyricist Nell Benjamin. Benjamin is among many -- writers and actors -- who say they are doing what they do because of the woman who gave us Heidi and other uncommon women making their way through sexist-infested waters. Christine Lahti agrees, saying, "Playing Heidi was my dream come true at that time. Wendy was the spokeswoman for our generation."
That was then, and several generations have come and gone. The production's success will depend on how many of us are anxious to see our lives played back, like a living scrapbook. ("She has preserved my memories," said the woman beside me) And whether it will appeal to those who are fighting the good fight anew. "That it's still relevant is a good and bad thing," says Elisabeth Moss. "There is sort of a third wave of feminism now."
It's too bad Wendy Wasserstein isn't here to write the third act.
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