Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Feminism has never exactly been thought of as a laugh riot, but somehow Wendy Wasserstein managed to locate its funny bone. Not by mocking it -- she was an ardent believer -- but by making the intoxicating, bewildering choices it presented to women a natural ingredient of the human comedy.
From her earliest efforts, such as "Uncommon Women and Others," to the mid-career triumph of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Heidi Chronicles" to such later, sardonic plays as "An American Daughter" and "Third," Wasserstein made her central subjects the question of what women of her generation wanted and the less facile realities of what they got.
"Having it all." Ha! In Wasserstein's work, the phrase engendered as much in the way of confusion as freedom.
She charted an up-and-down theatrical career through the changing longitudes and latitudes of her life. It's not surprising that many who admired her writing for the stage felt as if they were forging a personal relationship with her, as her tastefully sunny plays seemed to grow up with them, recounting episodes at college and work and family gatherings and bouts in later middle age with wearying illnesses.
And now she has died at age 55, five years younger than the great August Wilson, whose passing occurred a scant four months ago. Her death by lymphoma came yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The theater world, knowing for several weeks that she was gravely sick, had been keeping a word-of-mouth vigil for her, and still the news of the demise of such an ebullient chronicler of New York womanhood was a shock. And even sadder because of Lucy, the 6-year-old daughter she leaves behind. Wasserstein had Lucy at age 48 by artificial insemination, and the biological father was a friend whom the unmarried Wasserstein never identified publicly.
The American theater these days is like an appliance in a model line that's no longer being dependably stocked. When a part goes, where do you turn to order the replacement? Wasserstein's plays were not uniformly satisfying. After the Broadway acclaim for "The Heidi Chronicles" (1989) and the warmly observed "Sisters Rosensweig," (1993), she was unable to sing as acutely in any other key. But make no mistake: She had established herself as a commercially successful Broadway dramatist in an era when virtually no other woman -- heck, virtually no one at all -- was doing so. Her comedies will justly be remembered as vibrant documents of an urbane baby-boom generation and the more progressive view of women it embraced.
She was sort of the Neil Simon of the ERA. (If you don't know that ERA stands for "Equal Rights Amendment," you are probably too young to have appreciated Wasserstein in her prime.) In fairness, her plays were more topical than Simon's, and although she often could not resist the ba-dum-bum temptations of the slick one-liner, her comedy was both more humane and more calculated to get a rise out of members of her own choir. The comedies are filled with knowing references to highbrow culture and pop, from Wittgenstein to Judy Collins. "Do you know," one of the students observes in "Uncommon Women and Others" -- the 1977 play set at her alma mater, Mount Holyoke College -- "the first time I ever really understood about diaphragms or sex was from reading 'The Group.' "
"Wendy couldn't help but write a happy ending in everything she wrote because her business was comedy," says Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J. In 2004, his company, ensconced at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, premiered a double bill of Wasserstein playlets, one of which, "Third," later was expanded and then presented last autumn by Lincoln Center Theater. "She knew how she wanted to end her plays, and so they ended with satisfaction and redemption, even though they could also be bittersweet."
In person she could be bubbly, ingratiating, resolutely unglamorous. She had a pudding face, she was rumpled, her hair was often a twisting thicket of unruly curls, and there was a magnetism in her wit and lack of vanity. City-born and -bred, she seemed a quintessential product of New York, always running with the "in" theater crowd: Her wide range of pals included such writers as New York Times columnist Frank Rich and such elite drama people as Andre Bishop, artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater, who in stints there and earlier at Playwrights Horizons first presented the bulk of her work.
She wasn't wildly prolific, but "Heidi" -- which records the life and times of an art history professor passing through the turbulent, evolutionary late 1960s, '70s and '80s -- cemented her position as an "event" playwright.
She was also a cultural humorist, an observer of the Manhattan folkways of Saks and Zabar's, the Met and the Plaza. Her articles regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines. She wrote about her love of the theater, most memorably in a children's book, "Pamela's First Musical," that's been adapted as, yes, a musical. One of the theater projects she championed was the "Open Doors" program administered by the Theater Development Fund, which sent public high school students to a season's worth of plays and musicals, accompanied by professionals in the theater.
"New York playwright liberal" was the title she conferred on herself, with a degree of wryness, during an interview I conducted with her in March 1997 in Cafe Un Deux Trois, a theater district bistro. At the time, she was preparing for the debut of her most overtly political play, "An American Daughter," inspired by the Zoe Baird incident. Baird was President Bill Clinton's nominee for attorney general who withdrew after it was revealed that she had employed illegal immigrants in her home. Like many of Wasserstein's plays, this one eventually made its way to Washington: "An American Daughter" was produced in 2003 at Arena Stage.
Wasserstein viewed Baird's turmoil as emblematic of the progress women had made and the bias that persisted against those who tried to rise too high in a man's world. Still, the piece lacked the brand of native wisdom, that heightened knowledge of a subject from the inside out, that characterized "Uncommon Women" and "The Heidi Chronicles." The play got tepid receptions here and in New York.
Although her health seemed to decline shortly after the difficult birth of her daughter, Wasserstein returned in her last plays to topics of more intimate concern. "Welcome to My Rash," the playlet paired at Theater J with "Third," took up the question of a woman with facial paralysis and a mysterious rash between her legs. It was a rather sober work, looking at the issue of a middle-aged writer and a brush with mortality.
True to her nature, Wasserstein wrote an upbeat conclusion. The character undergoes an experimental transfusion and, as Roth put it, "regains her equilibrium."
"That was Wendy," he adds. "Ever the optimist."