One of the characters in Wendy Wasserstein's "Uncommon Women and Others" wants to grow up and put Wittgenstein on film. By the end of the play, we learn she has succeeded. And her film adaptation of the Austrian philosopher's work has been televised - where else? - on PBS.
As a poke at PBS programming decisions, however, this little joke of Wasserstein's is not quite fair. For it's on PBS that "Uncommon Women and Others" will be broadcast tonight. WIttgenstein, make way for Wasserstein.
"Uncommon Women is female, flip, hip and funny. Those who think of public broadcasting primarily as a forum for middle-aged men pontificating about philosophy, politics or the past are in for a surprise.
Not that this a great play. In fact, it's not quite a play, by the more conservative definitions of the word. It's more of a string of brittle, dark comic monologues, recalled in flashback at a reunion of a gang of classmates from Mt. Holyoke College, Call of 71.
The characters talk to each other in the flashbacks, but they talk with a wit and a sense of style that makes them seem more like working entertainers than college students. Nevertheless, they do entertain. Several of the best young actresses in America are involveed - Meryl Streep, Swoosie Kurtz, Jill Elkenberry, and, in a delicius appearance as the day-dreamy Wittgenstein devotes, Anna Levnne. - Like some of the best comedians, they also manage to suggest the anxieties and the pain beneath the laughs.
As a unit, they illustrate a scope of options for women far larger than the one available to their mothers' generation (represented here by their housemother). And the opions bring uncertainties. "Uncommon Women" is uncommonly, intensely contemporary, particularly for PBS play.
Not surprisingly, Wasserstein her into eifht parts," she says, though a lot of the deails are imagined. Tere is one character, Holly, whose family background most resembles Wasserstein's. Maybe not so surprisingly, Holly is stuck with some of the more self-consciously serious speeches, and they don't quite work.
One of the characters recalls learning about sex when she was 12 by reading "The Group" - and obvious godmother of "Uncommon Women." That's pure Wasserstein. She says she learned all about sex while delving into Mary McCarthy's novel on a family outing to Cleveland. Recalls Easserstein: "I asked my sister if that was how it was and she said yes."
"Uncommon Women" I considerably more frank - and Hilarious - on the subject of sex than, say "Three's Company" (though the subject is still limited to talk, not action). Still, there are some words not allowed on PBS. Wesserstein learned.
Wasserstein is not disappointed with the TV version of her play, however. Hatched in the Yale Drama School, "Uncommon Women" traveled to workshop productions at the off-off-Broadway Playwights Horizons Theatre and the O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference, then to the Phoenix Theatre off-Broadway, before making it to the tube courtesy of WNWR's "Theater in America" series. Part of the play works vest on TV, says the playwright.
The length moved from 75 minutes to 165 minutes to 120 minutes to the 90 minutes required for TV. The jokes came, the jokes went. Some of the cutting hurt, Wasserstein acknowledged. But TV added realistic locations and props - he snowy terrace of the all-women Trinity College in Connecticut, for example, and an authentic Mt. Holyoke tea service. Perhaps most important, V's closeups take us closer to the characters psychlogically as well as physically.
"Theater in America" was attracted to the play because its episodic structure was easily adapted to television, says Wasserstein. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of natural commercial breaks in the action, if OBS had commercials. But this was not one of Wasserstein's considerations.
her play is "picaresque" - Like the genre of novels mentioned by one of the characters - because, says Wasserstein, "you come up with fragments and images in your memory, separated by dots. There's no answer, just more dots. I don't know what's going to happen to the characters, and the play wouldn't be as good if I did."
Wasserstein is 27. so she may get find a few answers. In the meantime, she is still intersted in writing about women friends and their choices and confusions. She says when she was looking for theaters to do her play a frequen response was "but we just did 'Vanities'" - another play about a reunion of women friends. "So there can be only one play about women?" asks Wasserstein.
Her next play will be set in Radio City Music Hall, and WNE is making it possible for her to write it. But the nicest thing about her recent success is not the money, she says. It's this: "No longer can people ask you 'why don't you get smart and take the business boards?'" She is now a bona fide palywright.
"Can you believe it?" she says, as if she clearly can't. "This play is going to be on TV. Coast to coast."