Wendy Wasserstein

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

Wendy Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 18, 1950. She was the youngest of the five children of Morris W. Wasserstein, a textile manufacturer, and Lola Scheifer Wasserstein, an amateur dancer, both immigrants from Central Europe. An awkward young girl and a less than elegant dresser, Wendy developed a sense of humor as a survival skill. When she was thirteen, her family moved to the fashionable East Side of Manhattan, where she attended the Calhoun School, an exclusive girls’ prep school. In order to be excused from athletics, she wrote the school’s musical revue for the mother/daughter luncheons. She also studied at the June Taylor School of Dance and frequently attended Broadway shows.

Wasserstein attended Mount Holyoke College, where she studied to be a congressional intern. Her interest in theater, however, was sparked by a summer playwriting course at Smith College and by her junior year excursion at Amherst College, where she participated in theatrical productions. After earning a bachelor of arts degree in history from Mount Holyoke, she received a master of arts in creative writing from the City University of New York, where she studied under novelist Joseph Heller and playwright Israel Horowitz. In 1973, her play Any Woman Can’t, a satire about a woman whose failure as a tap dancer leads her to marry an egotistical sexist, was produced Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, a theater that would play a significant part in her career.

In 1973, Wasserstein was accepted by both the Columbia School of Business and the Yale University School of Drama, and she chose to attend Yale. While at Yale, she wrote Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (1974), a cartoonish caricature of college life focusing on male domination of women, and she collaborated with Christopher Durang on When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth (1975), a parody of beauty contests. These early plays about the suppression of women display an absurdist humor depending on comic caricatures and a broad use of irony.

In her 1975 one-act thesis production at Yale, Uncommon Women, and Others, Wasserstein’s style moved closer to realism. During a summer at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center, she expanded the play into a full-length comedy that was eventually produced Off-Broadway in 1977. In 1978, the play appeared on public television. Critics now hailed Wasserstein as a promising new playwright, and her play was produced throughout the United States, winning her an Obie Award, a Joseph Jefferson Award, and an Inner Boston’s Critics Award.

After adapting John Cheever’s short story “The Sorrows of Gin” for a television production on public television, Wasserstein opened her next play,Isn’t It Romantic, Off-Broadway in 1981. Critics found the play loosely constructed and full of unnecessary jokes. After seven revisions, she reopened the play in 1983 at Playwrights Horizons, where it achieved critical acclaim and was a box-office success, running for 733 performances.

In 1983, her one-act play Tender Offer, about a father who misses his daughter’s dance recital, was produced by the Ensemble Studio Theater. In 1986, The Man in a Case, her one-act adaptation of an Anton Chekhov short story, was produced by the Acting Company. Her 1986 musical Miami received only a workshop production. After writing for television and finishing several unproduced screenplays, she rocketed back into national prominence in 1988 with The Heidi Chronicles, the play that would establish her as both a noted playwright and a popular success. The Heidi Chronicles won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Drama Desk Award. The play also made Wasserstein the third woman in a decade to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the first woman to win a Tony Award for an original drama.

Continuing her success, Wasserstein published a collection of essays, Bachelor Girls (1990), and opened The Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center in 1992. As both a critical and a box-office success, the play moved to Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater and was nominated for a Tony Award.

Wasserstein became a single mother in 1999 and continued to write plays. She was hospitalized with lymphoma in December, 2005, however, and died a month later at the age of fifty-five.

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