Wasserstein, Wendy (Vol. 90)
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.
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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 friends—at Mount Holyoke College, and about their prissy housemother; a deadpan, silent freshman; a former friend who has more or less left the clique; and a square type who combines cheerful rhymed chatter about elves and Piglet with practical arrangements for fixing other girls up with Yale men for weekends. That these satellites—the "Others" of the title—may indeed be more uncommon than the women of the constellation is just one of many jokes in this refreshing show. It opens with a prologue set in a restaurant, where the five heroines meet for the first time since their graduation, six years earlier, and where, amid hugs and shrieks and kisses, each of them reports on her activities up to now. Under the laughter there is in almost...
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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 friends and foes, and are presently transported back into their college days, only to return to the present at play's end. The prologue-play-epilogue construction is highly conventional, and, indeed, there is nothing uncommon about Uncommon Women and Others. In fact, Miss Wasserstein's problem is a very common one among young playwrights writing memory plays about themselves and friends when younger yet: Nothing much has happened to them, and what has is far from unusual. Still, it matters to them, and they cannot see why it should not be equally fascinating to the rest of the world. But it isn't. When older authors, with more experience and greater perspective, look back at their pasts, they can find purposeful structures along...
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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 Konstantin Stanislavsky, the method seeks truthful characterization through the conveyance of the actor's personal emotional experiences in similar situations. In the review below, Clurman offers a mixed assessment of Uncommon Women and Others.]
Perhaps the most suitable reviewer for Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others would be a young woman who went to college in the early 1970s. This play by a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama is sympathetically entertaining and if we take her at her word, authentic. I cannot be sure as to the authenticity, but if we grant it that merit, it is also revealing.
The play deals with a group of students (whose average age is 21) at Mt. Holyoke....
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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 characterizations relying heavily on racial and cultural type, psychologized plots about mild generational conflict and not too passionate romance, powdered saccharine slowly sifting over everything at the end, and never a glimmer of the world outside.
TV writers know that their prime function is to fill time between one commercial and the next; what Wendy Wasserstein—who seems talented, serious, and surely perhaps alas, not cynical—thinks she's doing is to entertain us very, very lightly with the theme of women's self-determination. The commercials are there, however, selling upper middle-class reconciliation.
In Isn't It Romantic Janie, a would-be writer, tries to declare some independence from her...
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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 and Others, has had more than 1,000 productions on college campuses across the country and has reached an even larger audience on public television. Her second, Isn't It Romantic, is currently a hit off-Broadway, at Playwrights Horizons.
But like the other Wassersteins, who, she says, had originally hoped she'd "marry a lawyer, live in Scarsdale and do plays at the community center," Ms. Wasserstein sees the peculiarity of her situation. "Who," she asks with sincere amazement, "goes out into the world to become a playwright?"
This particular one was born in Brooklyn, in 1950, to a textile manufacturer—"My father invented velveteen," she says—and his wife—"a mother and a dancer"—who'd come...
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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 scrupulous fairness. Am I wrong?
Take a look at Wendy Wasserstein's Isn't It Romantic, which you will want to do anyway since it's an altogether delightful business. Miss Wasserstein started out, several years ago, to write a funny but not exactly evenhanded little comedy about two independent young women, Janie and Harriet, who were hard and fast chums pursuing rather different goals. Harriet wanted to be as independent as her mother and Janie wanted to be independent of her mother. That's for starters.
When the play was first done at the Phoenix in 1981, the youngers were pretty solidly there. We felt we knew Janie first shot out of the box. Janie, now played by Cristine Rose, is a sort of...
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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 borrows the earlier play's superstructure of five main characters playing out social roles against a backdrop of clearly typed characters. But the crucial difference is that Wasserstein shows how a comedy full of women no longer needs to be a bitter dead end.
As her subtitle documents, Wasserstein's text is "A Play About Five Women Graduates of a Seven Sisters College Six Years Later." While it begins and ends "Six Years Later" with the five women gathered at a restaurant for lunch, most of the action is a replay of scenes during the characters' senior year at Mount Holyoke. There is no plot. Instead of events and suspense, Wasserstein gives her characters time and peer audiences. As they drift in and out of the play's...
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SOURCE: An interview in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1988, pp. 257-70.
[In the following interview, Wasserstein talks about her plays Uncommon Women and Others and Isn't It Romantic, and shares her views on humor and feminism.]
Challenged by my esteemed editor to write a printable article on women writers and humor in theatre (try to imagine a scene from The Front Page, only in an Indian restaurant—"Esther, get me that article, and pass the poori!"), I decided that I had nothing to say that one such writer couldn't say for herself. Thus, with the lure of a bottle of Diet Coke and the promise of being quoted in an academic journal, Wendy Wasserstein agreed to be interviewed for this article. I met Wendy, the noted playwright, author of Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic? and Miami, and a contributing editor to New York Woman, while working as a stage manager on Isn't It Romantic? and I knew her to be a witty, straightforward and eminently quotable woman. Eager to hear her views on humor, in both her work and her life, I met with Wendy on a sweltering afternoon in August, 1987.
[Cohen]: I guess my first question is, when did you decide you liked to write? When did writing become something that you liked to do?
[Wasserstein]: I remember as a child...
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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 table. But I'm not sure that's true. It's very satisfying for me to hear the audience laugh. The audience is alive, it's there. What's interesting about my plays is that they are comedies, but they are also somewhat wistful. They're not happy, nor are they farces, which is odd because I've been given offers to write sit-coms for television, and I don't think I'd be good at it. There's an undercurrent in my work.
Christopher Durang is a very dear friend, and a brilliant writer. We've collaborated on a film [When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth] and it's interesting how our voices merge at a point. Mine tends to be more warm, and his is more startling. There's a give and take, but I'm still interested in...
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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 device—picking up the lives of characters at dramatic junctures over a prolonged period—only to cruelly effect a sort of dramatic euthanasia on it. Central to this theme are the character and career of Heidi Holland, played by Joan Allen.
Heidi's life is sketched out in eleven vignettes over the course of some twenty-three years. Along the way we are introduced to the two men in her life, Scoop Rosenbaum, a cocky, too-smart magazine editor played by Peter Friedman (who, in the course of researching his role, spent some time with me; he must have learned the cockiness elsewhere), and Peter Patrone, an awkward but acid-tongued gay pediatrician played by Boyd Gaines. It would be fun and delightfully voyeuristic to drop in on...
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SOURCE: "Prize Problems: 'Chronicles' & 'Cocktail Hour'," in Commonweal, Vol. CXVI, No. 9, May 5, 1989, pp. 279-80.
[An American novelist and drama critic, Weales is the author of such books as American Drama since World War II (1962) and The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960s (1969). In the following excerpt from a review of a Broadway performance of The Heidi Chronicles, he comments on the play's major weaknesses, particularly centering on the character of Heidi, whom he considers both unconvincing and lacking in dramatic interest.]
Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles began as a workshop production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre; then, shepherded by the Seattle Rep's Daniel Sullivan, it moved to a well-received off-Broadway debut and then to Broadway; it has now been blessed by the Pulitzer Prize committee. It is a typical American-theater success story of the 1980s, but I have trouble working up much enthusiasm for its triumphant journey.
The Heidi of the title is an art historian, a presumably intelligent and sensitive woman who moves from 1965 to 1989, picking her way through the ideational thickets of those years, only to find that the goal of her generation, to become an independent woman in a male world, brings emptiness with it. The audience follows Heidi's progress in brief scenes that teeter on the edge of broad satire and...
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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 trite; her dialogue is pretentiously witless.
Heidi, originally performed at Playwrights Horizons, was transferred to Broadway last March in a surprisingly lavish production, starring the superb Joan Allen in a role well beneath her talent. In thirteen scenes, the play takes its title character from 1965 until today, purporting to depict the problems of an intelligent, single woman in contemporary society. Heidi encounters two men in her youth: A bright boy she first meets at a prep school dance, who eventually becomes a pediatrician, and who turns out to be a homosexual; and a smart-ass womanizer she meets at a McCarthy-for-President rally, who becomes a successful magazine publisher. She becomes the long-term...
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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
I came to Australia to spend six months learning about women and the arts here. I arrived on the other side of the earth on April Fool's Day. I saw your Chronicles twice before I left the States, once at Playwrights Horizons and once on Broadway. I've been thinking about you ever since.
You haven't met me. I'm writing because you said you felt "stranded." I understand the feeling. I work in the theatre. Your field is art history. We both study images. We both work to create positive images of women.
Let me recount for you a dozen images I saw onstage in The Heidi Chronicles. Then you'll know if I...
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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 playwriting over at Smith … the reason being that there was much better shopping in Northampton than in South Hadley."
It is a telling comment for the 39-year-old writer. In her plays, characters often struggle between traditional values and the goals they have set for themselves. Though the conflicts are serious, both for the characters and their creator, Wasserstein's instinct is to employ her considerable sense of irony to help gain perspective.
One essay that typifies her indefatigable wit and depth is entitled "Jean Harlow's Wedding Night." It concerns the author's recollection of flying to Paris to meet a man she loves. The affair proves to be a disaster and Wasserstein's reaction when the man tells her...
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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 woman. It won the Pulitzer, Tony, N.Y. Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Hull-Warriner, and Susan Smith Blackburn awards. Ostensibly a triumph for women, Heidi is instead a problematic example of how the male-dominated production system of commercial theater maintains its control over women, in this case with the complicity of a woman playwright.
Heidi follows a single woman through three decades, from high school in the 1960s and feminist activities in the 1970s to a career as an art historian who rediscovers "lost" women painters and chooses to become a single mother in the 1980s. Like Wasserstein's previous plays, Uncommon Women and Others (1977) and Isn't It Romantic...
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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 great good humor, complexity, depth of feeling, and a firm refusal to accept trite and easy images. She writes the truth about people and their lives without blinking. She teaches us all what it was like to live through a period of great turmoil and confusion.
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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 her fellow matriculants of the elite "Seven Sisters" colleges. In Uncommon Women and Others (1977), she actually apes The Group, setting the formative college experiences of a circle of women within the framing device of a reunion. Similarly, The Heidi Chronicles (1988) sandwiches 25 years of its art historian heroine's development, especially her relations with the man who loves her and the other man she loves, between slices of a lecture on women artists. The middle play, Isn't It Romantic? (1983), concerns two young businesswomen's struggles to live up to and give up on their parents' expectations. The focal character in all three is habitually undecided and standoffish but arrives at some self-understanding by...
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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 Beauty Syndrome: The New Agony of Single Men" a riotous takeoff on the horrible clamor that was created in the media during the mid-'80s regarding single women and their reduced chances of finding husbands. She's turned this around, saying, "Forty-year-old men are more likely to have a Pan Am 747 land on their head (than get married)!"
Other witty pieces include some personal ones about a relative's Bar Mitzvah, a humorous/serious tribute to the author's mother, Lola, and a wonderful trip Wasserstein took to Japan to view a Japanese version of her play, Isn't It Romantic. One unforgettable scene in her essay "Winner Take All" shows her sitting at her typewriter in her bathrobe, feeling incredibly sorry for herself when...
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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 herself that it's a source of pride not to make the honor roll. Still, for the rest of my life I will remember the name of all those people who did. I am a walking Where Are They Now column. I'm perpetually curious as to what happened to all those supposed prodigies who were singled out while I and my coterie of far more interesting malcontents passed on.
As a child, on the eve of any school evaluation, I would inform my parents which of my teachers "hated me." In retrospect, it seems doubtful that I was offensive enough to evoke my teacher's animosity, but I certainly wasn't diligent enough in my schoolwork to earn their admiration, either. So, having fashioned a life based on anticipated exclusion—my date...
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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 December 1988 it opened at Playwrights Horizons in New York City; three months later, it transferred to the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway, where it quickly became one of the major hits of the season. Awards have poured down upon the play and its author: in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best play of the season, The Heidi Chronicles won the Susan Smith Blackburn prize (a prize specifically meant to recognize outstanding work by women playwrights) and the Dramatists Guild Hull Warriner award which selects "the best American play dealing with contemporary political, religious or social mores." While my experience as a spectator is that audiences take the play lightly—they laugh, giggle and chat briefly after...
(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, recalling the day she discovered she belonged to the biological class of "cupcakivores," but she balances that confession with a touching description of the mixed emotions she experienced when she won the Pulitzer Prize. The result is a satisfying and very funny blend of self-deprecation, pride and bemusement.
(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 Boston, where she dispenses personal advice over the airwaves. From farthest India, the youngest sister, Pfeni Rosensweig, has jetted in; now a travel writer, she is shirking her mission, a study of the lives of women in Tajikistan. Equitably, all three sisters end up sharing center stage, both literally and figuratively.
Gorgeous, who, we are told, is happily married with four children, is group leader of the Temple Beth-El sisterhood of Newton, Massachusetts, on a visit to London; Pfeni is here to touch base with her lover, the famous stage director Geoffrey Duncan, whom she has converted to heterosexuality and may soon be marrying. Here, too, is a friend of Geoffrey's, the New York faux furrier and genuine mensch...
(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 Goode, née Rosensweig, a twice-divorced American Jew who is the European director of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. (It's interesting to note that the small stage of the Mitzi can, under the right auspices, seem as spacious and lavish as any in town; in this instance, the auspices are John Lee Beatty's, and the exquisite lighting is by Pat Collins.) The occasion that launches the action is the celebration of Sara's fifty-fourth birthday, and her two younger—but not much younger—sisters are coming to her house to celebrate. They are Pfeni, a free-lance travel writer, and Gorgeous, a wife and mother who is about to embark on a personal-advice TV program but at the moment is shepherding a group of Jewish ladies on a pilgrimage to the...
(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 deftly with the thorny ironies of the young feminist middle class. But in her new play she settles for—no, insists on—the clever laugh, the situation that charms rather than challenges. The play deals with three Jewish-American sisters celebrating the 54th birthday of the eldest, Sara, in London, where she's become a big-shot banker. Sara (Jane Alexander) has been on the cover of Fortune, but her emotional life is in a spiritual safe-deposit box. Pfeni (Frances McDormand) is a travel writer who restlessly ricochets between the world's flash points. Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn) is a housewife who's embarked on a radio career as Dr. Gorgeous, a kind of non-Teutonic Dr. Ruth. Consider the possibilities.
(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 Simon for the college set, a sit-com Three Sisters, already destined for Critics Circle Awards and anthologies like Best American Plays of the Year. My heart sank a little when the witty one-liners began popping ("Multiple divorce is a splendid thing, you get so many names to choose from"; "Love is love, gender is merely spare parts"). I had hoped, after The Heidi Chronicles, that my very gifted former student was shaking her witticism habit. The Sisters Rosensweig has a lot of charm, but it is a regression. I guess it's hard, in the precarious circus of American theater, to give up your trapeze.
Wasserstein's wit is not cruel, which makes her play at the same time endearing and somewhat toothless....
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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 them with gags. Result: a demand for tickets so great that The Sisters Rosensweig recently moved from a modest space in Lincoln Center to the full-sized Ethel Barrymore Theater.
Happily, Jane Alexander is still in the role of Sara, a fast-track international banker. To celebrate her 54th birthday, Sara's two younger siblings arrive simultaneously at her sumptuous London house. Pfeni, née Penny (Christine Estabrook), is a travel writer; Gorgeous (Madeline Kahn) is a tornado in the guise of a housewife, mother of four, and host of a Boston call-in radio program.
At first, all three women seem busy and fulfilled. But as the play develops, each turns out to be as needy as a poster child. Divorced...
(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 British financier with "the biggest balls at the Hong Kong/Shanghai bank," "no longer sees the necessity for romance" until she meets Merv, a 58-year-old furrier ("Shhh! Please, synthetic animal covering," he tells progressive clients). Vintage Wasserstein, their courtship is one of passion thinly concealed by pugnaciousness. Sara: "How many support groups did you join when Roslyn died? I'm sorry that was cruel." Merv: "No, but it was in surprisingly bad taste. I joined two." Sara: "And what did you learn about yourself?" Merv: "That I couldn't write poetry."
Just as marriage seems inevitable, though, Wasserstein steers the romance askew by having Sara limit their relationship to a friendship. Cynics will say that...
(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 second, amusingly named "Gorgeous," is the wife of a corporate lawyer from Newton, Massachusetts, and a radio personality herself. The youngest is Pfeni, a globe-trotting journalist. As the play begins, all three gather in London for Sara's fifty-fourth birthday. Sara, who has been married three times, in the course of the play has a one-night affair with a furrier who talks like a second-rate Jewish comic. Gorgeous reveals that her corporate lawyer husband is actually unemployed and playing at being a film noir detective, supported by her income as a radio purveyor of advice. Pfeni breaks up with the man in her life, a homosexual stage director. Sara's daughter, Tess, breaks up with her young man, an Irishman dedicated to 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 Lamb), 'the furrier who came to dinner.'
As an American comedy set in London, the play's jaundiced squint at Jewish displacement in middle-class life was always deliberate: the idea of withering roots and values is absorbed in a comfortable, creamy Holland Park apartment, enticingly well designed by Lez Brotherston. And Suzman's tense and throatily intoned Sara is easily the match of Jane Alexander's in New York; Sara, the twice-divorced European head of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, celebrates her 54th birthday in September 1991 and provides a gloriously irrelevant social flashpoint while Russia crumbles and Lithuania declares its independence.
Wasserstein's confection, with its nods towards Chekhov,...
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Corliss, Richard. "Broadway's Big Endearment." Time 122, No. 27 (26 December 1983): 80.
Favorably assesses Isn't It Romantic, noting that although Wasserstein writes about Jews and "WASPs," she does so without "a tincture of sitcom condescension, finding poignant similarities in perpendicular lives."
Hoban, Phoebe. "The Family Wasserstein." New York 26, No. 1 (4 January 1993): 32-7.
Feature article profiling Wasserstein, her parents, and siblings, noting her family's influence on her work.
Ruling, Karl G. "The Heidi Chronicles: A Production Casebook." TCI 27, No. 3 (March 1993): 40-3.
Discusses various productions of The Heidi Chronicles, focusing, in particular, on set designs and budgets.
"The More Decade." Harper's Bazaar 117, No. 3268 (June 1984): 146-47, 180.
Relates Wasserstein's thoughts on success, aging, independence, and motherhood. Comments from journalist Diane Sawyer, film critic Janet Maslin, and photographer Annie Leibovitz are also included.
(The entire section is 158 words.)