Theater

In Arena's 'Heidi Chronicles,' She's Still Single but Seriously Dated

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 16, 2007

The alumnae of Miss Crain's School have no idea what they're in for when Heidi Holland, Class of '65, stands up to address them on the topic of "Women: Where Are We Going?" Emblematic of much of "The Heidi Chronicles," the speech Heidi delivers is whiny and surprisingly sour, a caustic lament about her disappointment that the women coming of age after her aren't as dynamic and committed as, well, she.

Poor Heidi. So smart, so superior, so miserable. Those who remember with fondness the characters of Wendy Wasserstein's 1988 social satire (the winner, no less, of the Pulitzer Prize) may be shocked to discover how unlikably Heidi and the other boomer overachievers the playwright chronicles have aged. Not a one of them, it seems, is capable of touching on any issue that doesn't directly pertain to his or her own degree of unhappiness.

That, at least, is how the play comes across in its pinched, lackluster revival at Arena Stage. Is there a single person here you wouldn't dread being stuck in an elevator with? From Heidi's terminally self-righteous gay doctor pal Peter Patrone (Wynn Harmon) to her smug and overbearing would-be suitor Scoop Rosenbaum (Marty Lodge) to her array of cartoonishly shallow women friends, the characters project more than anything the off-putting attributes of intense self-absorption and self-regard.

When "Heidi" opened to acclaim off-Broadway 20 years ago, the country was in the final throes of the Reagan years. The activist '60s and navel-gazing '70s had given way to the spendthrift materialism of the '80s, and baby-boom primacy, in consumerism and pop culture, had taken hold. The questions Wasserstein was posing in "The Heidi Chronicles" -- about the unanticipated costs for women raised to seek satisfaction first in professional life -- were aimed at a generation still trying to reconcile past and present, to figure out where they fit in and whether in the age of Reaganomic excess they could or even should "have it all."

What seemed so provocative about "Heidi" back then remains a vital social concern today. I can remember heated debates over what Heidi's solipsistic retreat into single motherhood said about the state of the women's movement. But the way the issue is portrayed in this production makes it feel only slightly more significant than Carrie Bradshaw's Jimmy Choo fetish on "Sex and the City." (Small-world department: Sarah Jessica Parker, in fact, played several minor roles in the original production, and when it moved to Broadway was succeeded by none other than Cynthia Nixon.)

The menu of serious menaces today makes Heidi's agenda look rather petty. What's more tedious in these dangerous times than someone complaining about not feeling completely fulfilled?

Director Tazewell Thompson, whose gift for stirring theatricality was last on display at Arena in a 2004 revival of "M. Butterfly," does not find nearly as much inspiration in "Heidi's" less stylized domain. His staging in the Fichandler leans heavily on Wasserstein's epigrammatic ripostes, which makes the play sound ever more like a vintage sitcom.

And while "The Heidi Chronicles" perforce is a reflection of Wasserstein's pop cultural nostalgia -- its signature song is Sam Cooke's sublime 1957 "You Send Me" -- Thompson burdens the comedy with layers of unneeded context. Suspended above the stage, for instance, is a cube-shaped screen onto which is projected those '60s and '70s newsreels that have become ubiquitous components of plays evoking the period. The director adds his own nostalgia for the '80s as well, as when he has Lodge's Scoop pull out an oversize, late-'80s forerunner of the cellphone.

These inventions don't so much enhance the satire as date the play. Yet the serious deficiencies have to do not with overhead pictures but with the projection of the characters' emotional lives, beginning with Ellen Karas's malaise-suffering Heidi.

The play traces Heidi's political and emotional development from high school in the mid-'60s to her career as an eminent art historian at the precipice of the '90s. It's the level of personal choices, however, on which Heidi can establish no traction. The women in her life become cold careerists or affluent mommies, and the men are unattainable (Peter) or unappetizing (Scoop).

To navigate the arch and unstable universe Wasserstein conjures we need a warm and deeply complex or, at the very least, funny Heidi. Karas is an actress of inordinate poise and technical control, as she's shown over the years in projects as varied as Arena's aromatic revival of "The Women" and Studio Theatre's "Hilda."

But an intuitively accessible conduit for Heidi's emotional rite of passage she's not, unfortunately. Karas's Heidi stands apart, from us as well as from everyone else in the play.

Part of the problem for an actress is that Wasserstein hasn't written any characters to like, and neither Harmon nor Lodge is able to paint softly around the harsher edges of his role. In a variety of smaller parts, Susan Bennett and Emerie Snyder have more success, Bennett in particular as a militant lesbian and Snyder as a guileless flower child.

Donald Eastman's set has a suitable functionality, and once the production dispenses with the newsreels, the cube becomes a nifty device. Some of Merrily Murray-Walsh's costumes, however, are a little odd. A high-powered studio exec at a trendy Manhattan restaurant in a little black hat? In small ways as well as big, this chronicle of Heidi is a bit off.

The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Tazewell Thompson. Lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Fabian Obispo; wigs and makeup, Jill Kaplan; projection designers, Kirby Malone, Gail Scott White; fight director, Robb Hunter. With Hope Lambert, Catherine Weidner, David Covington. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through May 13 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit http://www.arenastage.org.


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