Wendy Wasserstein 1950–
American playwright, scriptwriter, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Wasserstein's career through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 59.
Wasserstein is best known for The Heidi Chronicles (1988), winner of several prizes including a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Her plays tend to be humorous and typically concern well-educated women who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s and who must choose between professional careers and the traditional roles of wife and mother.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Wasserstein and her family moved to Manhattan in 1962, where she attended private schools. Her interest in the theater began as a child when she was chosen to perform in school plays; later, she turned to playwriting when she discovered that she could be excused from physical education classes by writing musicals for her school's annual mother-daughter fashion show. After graduating from high school, Wasserstein attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, a private school for women. Wasserstein did not become seriously involved with the theater until her junior year when she took a drama course and acted in several plays. Graduating in 1971, Wasserstein eventually returned to New York City and attended City College, studying creative writing under playwright Israel Horovitz and novelist Joseph Heller before earning her M.A. in 1973. That same year, Any Woman Can't (1973), a bitter farce about a woman who tries to secure independence in a male-dominated world, became her first play to be produced professionally. Wasserstein applied to two prestigious graduate programs—Columbia Business School and Yale University School of Drama—was accepted by both, and opted for Yale, where she eventually earned an M.F.A. in 1976. At Yale she received direction from renowned American drama critic Robert Brustein, and met classmates Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato, and Meryl Streep, all of whom, like Wasserstein, would successfully establish themselves in the theater and the motion picture industry.
Noted for their simple story lines, complex characters, and witty dialogue, Wasserstein's plays explore how and why women choose marriage, a career, or a particular way of life, and the feelings of anguish, confusion, and libera-tion associated with such decisions. Her Uncommon Women and Others (1975) focuses on five women approaching their thirties who reunite six years after graduating from Mount Holyoke College. Contrasting the carefree optimism of the characters' college years with their present confusion and disappointment, the play depicts the majority of them as still undecided about what they want to do with their lives. In her next play, Isn't It Romantic (1981), Wasserstein concentrates on two women in their thirties—Janie Blumberg, an intelligent and slightly overweight Jewish writer, and her friend Harriet, a beautiful and sophisticated WASP business executive who marries a man she does not love—and their relationships with their mothers. Similar to Uncommon Women in many respects, Isn't It Romantic focuses on intergenerational conflict, the institution of marriage, and the notion that some women marry simply because it is expected of them. In The Heidi Chronicles Wasserstein sharpened her dramatic focus on feminist concerns by examining the social and intellectual development of a single character, an unmarried art historian named Heidi Holland. The play spans approximately 25 years, relating events from Heidi's personal life and professional career. Central to Heidi's development are her relationships with two men and her friendship with a group of women who inspire her involvement with the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, however, many of her peers have adopted the materialism that they once denounced; consequently, Heidi, who has maintained her commitment to feminist principles, is left disillusioned and feeling isolated. At an alumnae luncheon, which some critics consider the climax of the play, Heidi delivers a long monologue, confessing her feelings of abandonment and her disappointment with contemporary women, explaining, "I thought that the whole point was we were all in this together." Nonetheless, the play ends on an optimistic note with Heidi finding fulfillment as the single parent of a newly adopted daughter. Centering on three conspicuously different middle-aged sisters who share similarities with Wasserstein and her own siblings, The Sisters Rosensweig (1992) examines the complicated process of balancing a professional career with romantic relationships. Some reviewers have suggested, however, that this play's most significant theme concerns Jewish identity and the problem of assimilation with mainstream culture.
While Wasserstein has achieved some success as an essayist and a screenwriter, she is primarily known as one of America's most popular playwrights. Commentators have lauded Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others for its uncompromising wit and focus on women's issues. Although some reviewers have argued that its episodic structure obscures narrative perspective and dramatic focus, others have found that its plot is far less important than its characters and dialogue, which have been praised as both original and amusing. Commentators generally faulted early versions of Isn't It Romantic for its heavy reliance on wisecracks and one-liners; they argued that while such devices provide some genuinely humorous moments, they detract from the somber issues presented in the work. Wasserstein, however, has defended the play's humor, noting that her protagonist uses it as a form of self-defense. The revised version of Isn't It Romantic, which was first staged in 1983, was praised for containing sharper characterizations and a clearer focus on mother-daughter relationships. Despite its numerous awards, overall critical reaction to The Heidi Chronicles has been mixed. Although some reviewers considered aspects of the play unmotivated and implausible, many found Wasserstein's portrait of Heidi's generation poignant and well-observed. Linda Winer asserted: "[The Heidi Chronicles] is 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." William A. Henry III, however, has argued that the "play is more documentary than drama, evoking fictionally all the right times and places but rarely attaining much thorny particularity about the people who inhabit them." Still other commentators have faulted Heidi as an uninteresting character, and many, such as Gayle Austin, have argued that the work provides a disservice to women and the cause of feminism: "The trouble with this play is that although it raises issues, Wasserstein undercuts serious consideration through facile supporting female characters, sit-com humor, and a passive heroine who forms an absence at the center of the play." Although John Simon has suggested that The Sisters Rosensweig is technically Wasserstein's best play to date, most commentators have found it too dependent on situational humor and the contemporaneity of such emotionally-charged social issues as homosexuality, AIDS, and single motherhood. Nevertheless, Wasserstein continues to be recognized for her acute social observations, witty one-liners, and perceptive insights into contemporary society. Furthermore, she has been credited with influencing the direction of American drama by greatly expanding women's roles and by offering significant alternatives to the conventional happy endings of dramatic comedy.
Any Woman Can't (drama) 1973
Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (drama) 1974
Uncommon Women and Others: A Play about Five Women Graduates of a Seven Sisters College Six Years Later (drama) 1975; revised version, 1977
When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth [with Christopher Durang] (drama) 1975
Uncommon Women and Others (screenplay) 1978
The Sorrows of Gin [adaptor; from the short story "The Sorrows of Gin" by John Cheever] (screenplay) 1979
Isn't It Romantic (drama) 1981; revised version, 1983
Tender Offer (drama) 1983
The Man in a Case [adaptor; from the short story "The Man in a Case" by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1986
Miami (musical) 1986
∗The Heidi Chronicles (drama) 1988
Bachelor Girls (essays) 1990
The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays (dramas) 1990
The Sisters Rosensweig (drama) 1992
∗The Heidi Chronicles was adapted for and aired on cable television in 1995.
SOURCE: A review of Uncommon Women and Others, in The New Yorker, Vol. LIII, No. 42, December 5, 1977, p. 115.
[Oliver began her career as an actress, television writer, and producer, and joined the New Yorker in 1948, where she became the off-Broadway theater critic in 1961. In the following review, she lauds Uncommon Women and Others for its well-drawn characterizations and humor but suggests that there is an "underlying sadness" in the play as the women "try to cope with the times and with what is expected of them."]
Uncommon Women and Others, Wendy Wasserstein's funny, ironic, and affectionate comedy … is about five seniors—close...
(The entire section is 883 words.)
SOURCE: "The Group," in New York Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 50, December 12, 1977, p. 103.
[A distinguished American drama and film critic, Simon is the author of Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963–1973 (1976) and Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964–1974 (1976). Here, he contends that Uncommon Women and Others is well-written and enjoyable but adds that the subject matter of the play is too familiar to be especially interesting.]
Uncommon Women begins with five Holyoke alumnae meeting in a restaurant six years after graduation. They comment on their respective development or nondevelopment, reminisce about absent...
(The entire section is 620 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Uncommon Women and Others, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 225, No. 1, December 17, 1977, pp. 667-68.
[Highly regarded as a director, author, and longtime drama critic for The Nation, Clurman was an important contributor to the development of the modern American theater. In 1931, with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, he founded the Innovative Group Theater, which served as an arena for the works of new playwrights and as an experimental workshop for actors. Strasberg and Clurman introduced the Stanislavsky method of acting—most commonly referred to as "Method" acting—to the American stage. Based on the dramatic principles of Russian actor and director...
(The entire section is 662 words.)
SOURCE: "'Tis the Reason …" in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 52, December 27, 1983, pp. 109-10.
[Munk is an American editor and critic. Below, she likens Wasserstein's revised version of Isn't It Romantic to popular television drama, suggesting that the play's characterizations are weak and its plot lacks real dramatic conflict, but adds that the acting in Isn't It Romantic is excellent.]
Peculiar as it may seem, live theater for the upper middle class is tending more and more to become a replica of the TV drama that same class creates to pacify the rest of us: punchy little scenes moving from living room to bedroom to office; neat little...
(The entire section is 758 words.)
SOURCE: "Wendy, the Wayward Wasserstein," in The Wall Street Journal, February 7, 1984, p. 30.
[In the following article, Gold profiles Wasserstein's life and career up to the production of Isn't It Romantic.]
One Wasserstein arranges mergers and acquisitions for First Boston. Another runs the communications division of American Express. The third is married to a doctor. And the youngest—well, the youngest Wasserstein writes plays.
However aberrant her behavior may seem in the context of her family, Wendy Wasserstein appears perfectly normal to the people who concoct lists of promising young American playwrights. Her first play, Uncommon Women...
(The entire section is 1129 words.)
SOURCE: "Are Parents Looking Better on Stage?" in The New York Times, February 26, 1984, pp. 7, 36.
[Kerr is an American playwright, director, and highly respected drama critic for the New York Times who was awarded the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Criticism. A conservative critic whose likes and dislikes have often coincided with those of Broadway audiences, Kerr strongly believes that good theater is popular theater. In the following review, Kerr lauds the revised version of Isn't It Romantic for its improved characterizations.]
The older and younger generations are still having at it, but I think I detect a shift in the wind towards fairness. Even a...
(The entire section is 1460 words.)
SOURCE: "Comic Textures and Female Communities 1937 and 1977: Clare Boothe and Wendy Wasserstein," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, December, 1984, pp. 564-73.
[In the following excerpt, Carlson asserts that Wasserstein's innovative treatment of female roles in Uncommon Women and Others has contributed to the advancement of dramatic comedy, not only by diffusing old prejudices against women, but also by addressing serious issues without detracting from the play's overall humor and wit.]
Wendy Wasserstein's 1977 comedy Uncommon Women and Others mirrors [Clare] Boothe's [1937 comedy The Women] in its all-female world and picaresque plot; and it...
(The entire section is 1730 words.)
SOURCE: An interview in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 418-31.
[Below, Wasserstein discusses the characters, language, and humor of her Uncommon Women and Others and Isn't It Romantic as well as her views about being a woman playwright and the future of American theater in general.]
[Interviewer]: Your plays are very funny. Will you talk a little about comedic writing in general, and then specifically about women's comedy?
[Wasserstein]: Well, there's always that old Woody Allen joke: When you write comedy you sit at the children's table, and when you write tragedy you sit at the adult...
(The entire section is 6197 words.)
SOURCE: "East Side Stories," in Vogue, Vol. 179, No. 3, March, 1989, p. 266B.
[In the following unfavorable review, Carter characterizes The Heidi Chronicles, as "Off-Broadway lite" and reminiscent of television sitcoms.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles and Richard Greenberg's Eastern Standard are both comedic attempts to humanize the anxieties and dreams of bloodless yuppie existence. Drenched in soppy good intention, both plays have moved from venturesome Off Broadway, where they didn't really belong, to the commercial houses of Broadway, where they do…. In The Heidi Chronicles [Wasserstein] exhumes an old but promising...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 3, Autumn, 1989, pp. 464-65.
[An educator, critic, and nonfiction writer, Hornby teaches and writes about drama. In the following, he offers a negative assessment of The Heidi Chronicles.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles is a lifeless, vulgar play, rendered all the more irritating by the many awards that this non-playwright has won simply because she is a woman, writing on fashionable issues. Wasserstein does not even begin to know how to construct a play. Her characters are automatons, set in motion as targets for crude ridicule; her plots are aimless; her ideas are...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
SOURCE: "Dear Heidi: An Open Letter to Dr. Holland," in American Theatre, Vol. 6, No. 7, October, 1989, pp. 26-9, 114-16.
[Rose was the founder of the Roses International Women's Theater and Softball Syndicate. In the excerpt below, written in the form of a letter dated 1 October 1989 to the protagonist of The Heidi Chronicles, she accuses the play's eponymous heroine of complicitly participating in the oppression of women and challenges her to actively oppose the patriarchal ways of contemporary society.]
Oct. 1, 1989
South Adelaide, Australia
(The entire section is 3076 words.)
SOURCE: "The Wendy Chronicles," in Harper's Bazaar, Vol. 123, No. 3339, March, 1990, pp. 154, 162.
[In the following review, Black offers praise for Bachelor Girls.]
"I think one of the reasons I took up writing is my need to make order out of disorder … that and this problem I have of remembering everything that has ever happened and been said to me," says playwright Wendy Wasserstein, settling down with a cup of coffee in her cluttered apartment to discuss her new book of essays Bachelor Girls, due out next month. "You know, I might have made my mother truly happy and become a lawyer if a friend of mine at Mt. Holyoke college hadn't suggested we take...
(The entire section is 1007 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1, March, 1990, pp. 107-08.
[In the following review, Austin discusses characterization in The Heidi Chronicles and feminist reaction to the play. She notes that although the play has been lauded by some feminists for its focus on women, others argue that the work portrays women in traditional roles and has the potential to "become part of the system that oppresses women and so highly rewards their creative expressions when they aid in its purposes."]
The Heidi Chronicles is a rare play for Broadway. Written by a woman, its central character is an unmarried professional...
(The entire section is 1138 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays, in Library Journal, Vol. 115, No. 8, May 1, 1990, p. 89.
[In the following review, Luddy favorably assesses The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays.]
Wasserstein has made the cultural territory of the American experience since the 1960s her own. She is its most articulate theatrical chronicler. This collection of her recent work, Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles, traces that experience through three decades of changing styles, mores, life objectives, and intellectual challenges. She examines her characters and their times with...
(The entire section is 141 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays, in Booklist, Vol. 86, No. 19, June 1, 1990, p. 1872.
[In the following review of The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays, Olson compares Wasserstein's plays to the work of Mary McCarthy and Philip Barry.]
[Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays contains the] 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner and two earlier comic dramas by, if you will, the Baby Boomers' Mary McCarthy. Less acerbic and intellectual, more sentimental and emotional, Wasserstein has the same ambition McCarthy exercised in The Group. She tries to limn a stratum of society consisting for her as for McCarthy of...
(The entire section is 324 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Bachelor Girls, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 44-5. [In the following positive review, the critic discusses the humor and satire of the essays contained in Bachelor Girls.]
This collection of essays [Bachelor Girls] by Tony Award-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein includes enjoyable, funny reading as well as satirical social commentary that is short and gossipy enough to keep even the most skeptical reader interested.
Wasserstein's view of the world includes everything from the stark and serious, such as her anxiety-ridden trip to Rumania—to the satirical, such as in her article "The Sleeping...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
SOURCE: "Winner Take All," in Bachelor Girls, 1990. Reprint by Vintage Books, 1991, pp. 193-97.
[In the essay below, Wasserstein discusses her reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles.]
I dreamed I accepted the Tony Award wearing a CAMP EUGENE O'NEILL sweatshirt. It was an odd dream for two reasons. First, because my friend William Ivey Long, the costume designer, had made me a dress for the occasion; and, second, because until 1989 the only thing I'd ever won was a babka cake at a bakery on Whalley Avenue in New Haven.
My world view has always been from the vantage point of the slighted. I am the underachiever who convinces...
(The entire section is 1309 words.)
SOURCE: "Drama and the Dialogic Imagination: 'The Heidi Chronicles' and 'Fefu and Her Friends'," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 88-106.
[In the following excerpt, Keyssar expresses her disappointment with the tremendous success of The Heidi Chronicles. She contends that, according to Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of meaningful theater, in which drama is "simultaneously entire unto itself and part of the whole culture," The Heidi Chronicles is "aggressively monologic" and "self-contained," thus alienating large segments of society.]
The Heidi Chronicles was first workshopped in April 1988 by the Seattle Repertory Theatre; on 12...
(The entire section is 1560 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Bachelor Girls, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 1991, p. 10.
[In the following, Solomon offers praise for Bachelor Girls.]
In [the comic collection of essays entitled Bachelor Girls,] originally published in New York Woman, the author of The Heidi Chronicles reflects on the problems of being an intelligent female and less than gorgeous in contemporary America. Numerous writers, from Erma Bombeck to Cathy Guisewite (of the comic strip "Cathy"), have exploited the humorous potential of these topics, but Wasserstein writes with unusual perception and wit. She acknowledges her predilection for junk food,...
(The entire section is 144 words.)
SOURCE: "The Best So Far," in New York Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 43, November 2, 1992, pp. 100-01.
[In the following review, Simon praises The Sisters Rosensweig for its convincing characters and humorous dialogue, asserting that the work is Wasserstein's best to date.]
The Sisters Rosensweig is Wendy Wasserstein's most accomplished play to date. It is through-composed, with no obtrusive narrator haranguing us. Its central, but not hypertrophic, character is the eldest sister, Sara Goode, divorced from her second husband. An expatriate in London, she is celebrating her fifty-fourth birthday, for which her younger sister Gorgeous Teitelbaum has flown in from...
(The entire section is 791 words.)
SOURCE: "Chez Rosensweig," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 37, November 2, 1992, p. 105.
[In the following review, Oliver offers praise for The Sisters Rosensweig.]
Admirers of Wendy Wasserstein (fan club may be more like it) will be relieved to know that she is as romantic as ever, and that her head is in the right place, too, while her tongue remains safely in her cheek. I use the word "romantic" because her new play, The Sisters Rosensweig, at the Mitzi Newhouse, is more in tune with her Isn't It Romantic, of some years ago, than with the recent Heidi Chronicles. The Sisters Rosensweig takes place in the elegant London sitting room of Sara...
(The entire section is 666 words.)
SOURCE: "You Gotta Have Heart," in Newsweek, Vol. CXX, No. 18, November 2, 1992, p. 104.
[In the following review of The Sisters Rosensweig, which premiered at New York's Lincoln Center under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, Kroll maintains that Wasserstein's female characters are poorly developed and that the play's humor, while entertaining, evades rather than confronts serious issues.]
There's a fine borderline between entertaining an audience and ingratiating oneself with it. In her new play The Sisters Rosensweig Wendy Wasserstein violates that border. Wasserstein, who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for her play The Heidi Chronicles, has dealt...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
SOURCE: "The Editorial Plan," in The New Republic, Vol. 207, No. 24, December 7, 1992, pp. 33-4.
[A highly respected American drama critic, Brustein was formerly Wasserstein's teacher. He is noted for his controversial views regarding the theater and for his commitment to quality. In the following review, he finds Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig endearing but considers the work a regression to her earlier plays.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig, newly opened at Lincoln Center, has quickly been announced for Broadway, where it should have opened in the first place. It is the female equivalent of Conversations with My Father, Neil...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
SOURCE: "The Trivial, the Traumatic, the Truly Bad," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVI, No. 5, April 5-19, 1993, pp. 22-3.
[Kanfer is an educator, critic, editor, novelist, playwright, and nonfiction writer who has written for television. In the following excerpt, he discusses the weaknesses of The Sisters Rosensweig, noting its focus on Jewish identity and assimilation, and its allusions to Anton Chekhov's 1901 Tri sestry (Three Sisters).]
Sisterhood is powerful. Take Chekhov's The Three Sisters. Wendy Wasserstein did. The playwright transported a trio of siblings from imperial Russia to present-day England, gave their yearnings a feelgood spin, and diluted...
(The entire section is 918 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Sisters Rosensweig, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 30, 1993, p. 6.
[In the following review, Raskin offers a mixed assessment of The Sisters Rosensweig.]
One reason Wendy Wasserstein's characters are so compelling is that they have been invented by such a half-breed: a feminist playwright who can't seem to ignore the enticing call of the comfy Jewish suburban family. You can hear this call in the play that won her the Pulitzer Prize, The Heidi Chronicles, which ended happily when the heroine adopts a baby to raise on her own. And you can feel it intimately in the relationship at the center of this play. Sara, a 54-year-old...
(The entire section is 323 words.)
SOURCE: "English Versus American Acting," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 365-71.
[In the following excerpt, Hornby discusses characterization in The Sisters Rosensweig.]
Wendy Wasserstein's new play, The Sisters Rosensweig, like her earlier Heidi Chronicles, is a pseudo-feminist piece that will no doubt eventually be performed in every college theatre in the country. The three eponymous sisters at first give the impression of being independent women, but soon reveal a predilection for inadequate men, who nonetheless manage to dominate their lives.
The oldest sister, Sara, heads an international bank. The...
(The entire section is 623 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Sisters Rosensweig, in The Observer, August 14, 1994, p. 11.
[In the following review, Coveney offers a mixed assessment of a London production of The Sisters Rosensweig, but praises Wasserstein for her "clever mix of emotional comedy and old-fashioned Broadway wise-cracking."]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig is a well-wrought comedy about growing older without sex and learning to live with your family. Some folks around me were not sure about 'schtupping' but they soon caught on; we've all seen She Schtups to Conquer, after all, and that's how Sara Goode (Janet Suzman) proceeds with her fake furrier (Larry...
(The entire section is 311 words.)