Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208
Wendy Wasserstein 1950–
Wasserstein wrote her first off-Broadway play, Uncommon Women and Others (1977), while a student at Yale Drama School. Critics enjoyed this affectionate satire of a reunion of six Mt. Holyoke graduates; several commented that Wasserstein's wit and perceptiveness demonstrated a potential for future success in...
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- Critical Essays
Wendy Wasserstein 1950–
Wasserstein wrote her first off-Broadway play, Uncommon Women and Others (1977), while a student at Yale Drama School. Critics enjoyed this affectionate satire of a reunion of six Mt. Holyoke graduates; several commented that Wasserstein's wit and perceptiveness demonstrated a potential for future success in the theater. However, most agreed that she had not yet realized that potential with her second play, Isn't It Romantic (1981). Wasserstein based this play on a friendship between two women: Janie, a Jewish writer, and Harriet, a WASP business executive. In the course of the play, Janie questions her own personal and professional goals.
Although Isn't It Romantic wrestles with some serious contemporary issues, many critics thought that Wasserstein's heavy reliance on wisecracks and one-liners, while providing some genuinely humorous moments, detracted from these issues, and that the play as a whole was too episodic to allow for clear development of characters or ideas. Most agreed that Wasserstein remedied many of these problems in a later version of Isn't It Romantic produced in 1983. Critics found the second version of the play clearer than the first in its depiction of character motivation and growth, especially in the character of Janie. Wasserstein also presented a one-act play, Tender Offer, that same year.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 179
Wendy Wasserstein is apparently a young woman with a darting sense of the ridiculous, eyes which flicker mercilessly across a room and spy one absurd detail after another. She could easily have turned her play "Uncommon Women and Others" into an extended "Saturday Night Live" routine.
But she has put that Eastern school precocity in its place and created a group of characters who demand not only sympathy but affection. The laughs are there, many of them genuine thigh smackers, but Miss Wasserstein has shown triumphantly that she knows when to stop….
There's more than a trace of nostalgia for the rarefied atmosphere of the old snob schools. For young women in their late 20s, confronting vaguely unsatisfying marriages and careers, the smack of young minds working off of each other has to be remembered fondly.
But the real triumph of "Uncommon Women" is that you leave the theater caring deeply about its characters.
Edmund Newton, "Women One Can't Forget," in New York Evening Post, November 22, 1977. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 21, November 28-December 4, 1977, p. 140.
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Wendy Wasserstein has satirical instincts and an eye and ear for the absurd, but she shows signs of harnessing these talents to a harder discipline.
Her play "Uncommon Women and Others" … is exuberant to the point of coltishness. Miss Wasserstein, who is young, uses her very large gift for being funny and acute with a young virtuosity that is often self-indulgent.
But there is more. Unexpectedly, just when her hilarity threatens to become gag-writing, she blunts it with compassion. She blunts her cleverness with what, if it is not yet remarkable wisdom, is a remarkable setting-out to look for it. She lets her characters—some of them, anyway—get away from her and begin to live and feel for themselves.
"Uncommon Women," is about women in a time of changing traps: new ones, set and hidden in the same current of feminine consciousness and liberation that is springing the old ones. Although the play deals with feminist ideas, it is not so much interested in the traps as in the women. It does not disassociate itself from the march but it concerns itself with blisters.
The women are a group of friends at Mount Holyoke, one of the Seven Sisters colleges. We see them in flashbacks that take off from a reunion they hold six years after graduation. Only a small part of the focus is upon the changes that have taken place since; the time has not been long enough for them to be very great. The main emphasis is upon the lacerations, hopes, despairs and confusions that the times inflict upon these students at a hatchery for "uncommon women," where walls have turned porous and let all the winds blow through….
Susie … is a comic cartoon, very funny but hardly believable. So is her opposite, Carter, a genius freshman who sits catatonically on the floor practicing typing to the rhythm of the "Hallelujah" Chorus and plans to make a movie about Wittgenstein….
These two caricatures mingle awkwardly with the more rounded and believable figures of the students who are the heart of the play. There is Kate, handsome, active, programmed for success as a future lawyer but terrified by it. There is Muffet, who is torn between being liberated and wanting to find her Prince. There is Rita, quirky, funny and appealing, with her detailed obsession with the sexual aspects of liberation and her determination to be a fantastic person by the time she is 30. And there is Holly, rich, overweight, full of longing and indecision.
A terror of choices and the future afflicts all of them, and Miss Wasserstein has made this anguish most movingly real, amid all the jokes and the knowing sophistication….
If the characters, in their outlines, represent familiar alternatives and contradictions, Miss Wasserstein has made each of them most real. They do not stay within what they represent: In the reunion scene, set in the present, each has softened or shifted, and they will go on doing so. Miss Wasserstein's is an interim report and a convincing one.
Richard Eder, "Dramatic Wit and Wisdom Unite in 'Uncommon Women and Others'," in The New York Times, November 22, 1977, p. 48.
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"Isn't It Romantic," confirms and extends the promise shown by Wendy Wasserstein's first play, "Uncommon Women and Others," a few seasons ago. The new comedy is a witty and involving exploration of a contemporary feminine dilemma, the conflict between personal independence and romantic fulfillment.
Wasserstein again shows keen humor and canny perception in her account of two well-educated friends, a chunky, wise-cracking Jewish woman and her upperclass Wasp marketing exec pal, as they struggle against non-understanding parents, male condescension and their own romantic expectations in the bittersweet pursuit of happiness.
The Jewish heroine is the more fully developed of the two, and emerges as an endearing, funny, warm and principled contemporary woman. She's a convincing embodiment of the internal conflict of modern feminists who can't sacrifice independence and pride for love, even with a likable and sympathetic man.
Audiences will respond favorably to the character but may be disappointed at her climactic rebuff of the goodhearted young doctor who wants her to move in with him. But her action is obviously essential to the author's thesis.
The Harvard-educated businesswoman is also acutely drawn, and the device of complementary lead characters works well. But the latter character's affair with a snaky, egotistic office superior is tough to understand in view of the woman's obvious intelligence. Her eventual decision to marry an offstage colleague comes too abruptly and suggests plot expediency.
Wasserstein is less successful with the characters of the Jewish girl's parents, who come over as affectionately written stereotypes. The friend's hardbitten business exec mother is another interesting and complex character.
A synopsis may suggest that the play is more message-oriented than it really is. It's stuffed with clever jokes of the hip New York variety and until the pace begins to lag toward the close, moves along at a brisk clip. Some of the scenes cover the same basic territory, and about 20 minutes could be shaved with no loss of impact….
Wasserstein isn't yet a fully adept craftswoman, but she has a rare feeling for the feminine situation today and she writes with sunny wit. With the proper pruning, "Romantic" could be a good Broadway prospect.
Humm., in a review of "Isn't It Romantic," in Variety, June 17, 1981, p. 84.
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Wendy Wasserstein's "Isn't It Romantic" … could, in a sense, be considered a sequel to her "Uncommon Women and Others," of several years ago. "Uncommon Women" was a glorious comedy, with an undercurrent of satiric rage that held it taut…. "Isn't It Romantic" is about Janie Blumberg and her Gentile best friend and private-school and college classmate Harriet Cornwall, both of them aged twenty-eight and unmarried, and about their mothers, and about the men they see and sleep with and consider and discuss, and about the loving tie of best-friendship between women…. It is Janie, though, whose story is being told—a witty, original, overweight Jewish heroine whose life has come to a stop, and this time the undercurrent is of sadness, perplexity, and rootlessness. Janie simply cannot make a move without being pushed, and when at last the doctor she is in love with, sort of, tries to push her into sharing an apartment with him she puts her foot down and refuses, and she isn't sure why. Even though any play about low spirits is bound to be less springy than one about high spirits, or even anger, and even though this one seems at times as out of shape and as listless as its beguiling heroine, it is, episode by episode, very funny indeed. The source of the fun, of course, is Janie's (Wasserstein's) comic turn of mind, which is like no other on earth. The Jewish humor, for example, and the dropping of Yiddish words and phrases, which would seem to be an overworked vein by now, is as fresh and as funny as everything else.
Edith Oliver, "The Day before the Fifth of July," in The New Yorker, Vol. LVII, No. 18, June 22, 1981, pp. 86-7.∗
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With her previous Uncommon Women and Others, Wendy Wasserstein proved herself a playwright to watch and wait for; her current Isn't It Romantic throws the weight on the waiting rather than the watching, as the promise continues to be brighter than the delivery.
In Uncommon Women, Miss Wasserstein reminisced about herself and her college classmates, offering us enough uncommon and common women for a goodly cross section. Here … the cross section dwindles into a slice of life that, in turn, is mostly autobiography. That theme is apt to lead a young author down the garden path and straight into the flower beds of self-pity and sentimentality, which Miss W. avoids fairly successfully, but at the cost of landing in the shrubbery of prickly cuteness, a playful but all too defensive smart-aleckiness that tries to authenticate with ubiquitous thorns an absent rose….
Miss Wasserstein has gathered a nosegay of droll vignettes—sweetly and pungently scented, often naughtily spiky, but in some cases also rather wilted. I doubt whether much fun can still be squeezed out of the amiable friendship-hostility (a platonic version of love-hate) between Gentile and Jew, epitomized by Harriet's mispronunciations of the Blumberg Yiddishisms—typical Cornwall humor. Another drawback is the limiting "sickness" of some of the best jokes, as when Harriet's "My mother identifies with Jean Harris" is topped by fat Janie's "I think her mistake was stopping with Hy; she should have done away with all of them!" (There follows a list of dieticians.) This Barb can serve as an example of what I am not sure whether to call Yale Drama School or Christopher Durang humor, which consists of scrumptious, scattershot bitchiness that makes for a pointillism of pinpricks refusing to solidify into shapeliness.
One is amused and sometimes touched, but never shown what keeps Harriet wasting herself on the singularly callow Paul, or why Janie rejects the eminently endearing Marty. Miss W. is, clearly, better at parts than at wholes, more gag- than goaloriented. But she has a lovely forte: the comic-wistful line, as when someone inquires about Janie's mother, who, being a compulsive dance-class taker, is termed by Janie a dancer, "What company is she with?" only to be told, "She's an independent." Or, again, when Janie remarks bittersweetly, "Marty, look: Everything with you is simpler than it has to be." This could be a vein of gold, and needs only proper engineering to be efficiently mined….
Isn't It Romantic leaves us with too many not urgent enough questions, but its intermittent arid patches are relieved by an underlying puckish decency that, after every poisoned dart, blows another, smeared with antidote. We have every right to continue expecting more from this gifted writer.
John Simon, "Failing the Wasserstein Test," in New York Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 26, June 29, 1981, pp. 36-7.∗
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Wendy Wasserstein's "Tender Offer" is about a father who is so late picking up his little daughter at dancing school that he misses her recital. At the beginning, the child … is waiting alone, filling in time by improvising a dance to "Carolina in the Morning." She is furious, but we don't realize how furious until the father appears with some lame excuse about being detained at the office. Their conversation is stiff to begin with (and very funny, too), but when a silver trophy drops out from under the child's rolled-up dancing clothes the father begins to realize that what he has done to her is serious, and—two steps forward, one step back—a permanent reconciliation begins. Miss Wasserstein has used a trivial incident to trigger important emotions, and she doesn't falter for a moment.
Edith Oliver, in a review of "Tender Offer," in The New Yorker, Vol. LIX, No. 17, June 13, 1983, p. 98.
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In her new, improved version of "Isn't It Romantic," Wendy Wasserstein has added a sweet humanity to her comic cautionary tale about a young woman's ascent to adulthood. When the play was first presented two years ago … it overflowed with amusing lines about such protean subjects as indulgent parents, rebellious offspring and food as a substitute for love. With careful rewriting, the playwright has turned the tables on her own play…. [It] is now a nouvelle cuisine comedy….
Janie has the heart of a waif and sometimes the demeanor of a clown. Some of the character's jibes are still inner-directed, but the author has cut back on self-mockery and has even sacrificed a few of her funniest lines. She allows us to see the character as a trusting woman who wants "it all"—marriage, family, a job writing for the "large bird" on "Sesame Street," and loving parents who respect her distance….
Breezy, fresh and unaffected, "Isn't It Romantic" skips to its mother-daughter showdown, becomes belatedly tearful, but is immediately redeemed by a touching conclusion in which everyone agrees that "It's just too painful not to grow up."
Mel Gussow, "New 'Romantic' by Wendy Wasserstein," in The New York Times, December 16, 1983, p. C3.
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[Wendy Wasserstein] is among the funniest and most inventive writers around, but the first version of "Isn't It Romantic" seemed to me "as out of shape and listless as its beguiling heroine." That has now changed. Miss Wasserstein has revised her script, and she and her director, Gerald Gutierrez, have given the play momentum and a sense of purpose; there is nothing listless here…. My first feeling was one of dismay that the play had lost its innocence, but eventually I realized that that was the whole point: it has indeed lost its innocence but in the doing has acquired muscle and form. Janie, for all her frustration and bewilderment, learns who she is and what she wants, and when she turns down the unsuitable doctor she knows exactly why. The statement "Life is negotiable" occurs several times in the text, but she is not about to negotiate. The troubling emotions that were an undercurrent the first time around have now been brought to the surface, and without any loss of humor. The action is still a matter of short episodes…. The conversations of Miss Wasserstein's Gentiles sound as authentic and bright as those of her Jews. Harriet's mother, in sharp contrast to Janie's parents, is the very model of detachment, and, when her daughter keeps pressing her for advice and counsel, replies, with some irritation, "What is this, 'Youth Wants to Know'?" That is just one, though, of many funny and telling episodes.
Edith Oliver, in a review of "Isn't It Romantic," in The New Yorker, Vol. LIX, No. 45, December 26, 1983, p. 68.
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A few weeks ago I was mildly deploring American dramatists' apparent inability to pull open the shutters and look out into the big world beyond the emotional hothouse within whose clammy confines they and their work would seem to have become terminally trapped….
[The] arrival of Wendy Wasserstein's "Isn't It Romantic" at Playwrights Horizons convinces me that last month's diagnosis was too vague and general. True, the American theater seems more preoccupied than ever with personal relationships: but not all that many could honestly be dignified as fully adult ones. For quite a few playwrights, some of them very talented, the great contemporary problem appears to be whether, when, how and why to grow up at all.
Call this diaper drama, though the infants it involves are more likely to be 20 or 30 than two or three. The first essential ingredient is at least one parent capable of obsessing and preferably mesmerizing his or her progeny….
Janie Blumberg, an aspiring writer so rumpled she wanly describes herself as "an extra for 'Potemkin'," has moved into her own tiny apartment; but that does not deter her doting father and voracious mother, who arrive to wake her up at 7 o'clock A.M. with importunate advice…. She has to hack herself free, and does so, not without difficulty and tears. Her mother, again arriving uninvited, is forced to shout "my daughter is a grown woman" outside Janie's front door: Only then is she allowed into the apartment for a big, climactic scene in which peace is rowdily negotiated.
Considering Janie is approaching 30, you might think this a less than remarkable victory; but I suspect Miss Wasserstein would not agree. At any rate, she spends much of the play tacitly comparing her heroine with her best friend Harriet Cornwall, a Wasp whose casual amours and burgeoning career in marketing both seem to proclaim the independence she enjoins on others. But she too has a formidable parent, a svelte tigress effortlessly in control of her particular piece of the business jungle; and, if I read Miss Wasserstein correctly, Harriet is fundamentally even more in thrall to this mother than Janie to her more obviously possessive one. She gets her promotion. She becomes engaged, after a few days' courtship, to a man who will doubtless prove as disposable as her own father turned out to be. "All right for a first husband" is her mother's offhand summing-up of the romance. The cub will turn into a spun-nylon copy of the tigress, or maybe just remain a cub.
Miss Wasserstein writes with warmth, verve, and a captivating wit; and if the jokes and repartee sometimes seem excessively feverish, it is because some of the characters are pretty feverish people, hectically using language to keep their more unmanageable feelings at bay. That is particularly so of Janie…. Again the play isn't lacking in the kind of intelligence that can make you suddenly appreciate the point of view of a mother, a lover, a friend you have been lured into seeing only from the stance of those trying to cope with him or her. Yet it is difficult to take these people and their feelings … quite as seriously as Miss Wasserstein seems to want. Perhaps the comic atmosphere is, in spite of everything, too strong, too infectious. Perhaps Miss Wasserstein's talent is more for ruefully recording the signs and symptoms of pain, less for entering and exploring it. Perhaps she makes too big a deal of what should, after all, be an every-day feat: growing up.
Or is this a smug view? Many psychiatrists, their couches overflowing with the paternally bruised and maternally maimed, would doubtless say so. A thousand non-professional voices—middle-aged daughters doomed to look after their fathers, wives maddened by their husband's preoccupation with their mother-in-law—would promptly chorus their support. Neither life nor literature nor the theater is exactly lacking in instances of people who have found it difficult to sever what Sidney Howard, in his brilliantly observant study of manipulative mother and half-castrated son, called "The Silver Cord." (p. 2)
There would seem to be two main troubles with contemporary contributions to the genre. First, they tend to be narrow in scope…. Contemporary writers about parents and children make the odd gesture towards creating a context—professions are mentioned, jobs specified, and so on—but it is seldom seen as important or even relevant. The more they can isolate relationships within a social vacuum, the happier they would seem to be.
The second trouble with diaper drama these days is its proliferation. When there's too much about, the theater begins to look like a kindergarden and feel like an incubator for overgrown babies. There are, after all, other subjects than how to stand up to poppa, or how to stop momma pouring chicken soup down your throat when you're 30 years old. There are more exhilarating rallying cries than the one that comes at an important climax of "Isn't It Romantic." "It's just so painful not to grow up." There are other things for a heroine to do than battle her way to a long-overdue adulthood. In fact, there's a world out there to discover. (pp. 2-14)
Benedict Nightingale, "There Really Is a World beyond 'Diaper Drama'," in The New York Times, January 1, 1984, pp. 2, 14.
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[Isn't It Romantic presents] a series of hard-driving skits, most of which conclude with some kind of punch line or shock—a new dramatic shape that probably issues from … [a childhood apprenticeship] in front of the TV screen. This gives Isn't It Romantic … a compelling stop-and-go movement. Unfortunately,… the prevailing emotional atmosphere is one of injured self-regard and subliminally rationalized prejudice….
Isn't It Romantic, which is set in New York, has the kind of heroine the whole world thinks of as a New Yorker: Janie, a bright, plump, emotionally agitated young Jewish woman, who insults herself with sophisticated quips … and fights off a hopeless boyfriend whose family owns a chain of sit-down delis. If this ethnic waif seems less like a person than a tourist attraction, it's at least partly because she so resembles Rhoda on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show….
[In] Isn't It Romantic, the cutting edge of … [Wasserstein's] swipes at the pretensions and eccentricities of young upper-middle-class New Yorkers feels a little blunted. If she's clever enough to name an overdressed, Don Juanish executive Paul Stuart, why doesn't she do a full-scale number on pretentious haberdashers, the way she once gave it to obnoxiously ladylike Seven Sisters girls?… [With] tightening and revising, the colloquial, wisecracking script might work as the libretto for a nice, old-fashioned musical along the lines of [Betty] Comden and Adolph Green's On the Town. But even in a musical, the crucial scene where Janie's parents try to buy her love with a mink coat would probably still be pushing things a bit.
What is disturbing about Isn't It Romantic is its ugly reverse bigotry, which grows uglier still for being unacknowledged and probably unconscious. Janie's great epiphany occurs when she realizes her idolized East Side girlfriend Harriet is going to marry a man she isn't crazy about. This act of supposedly coldblooded practicality throws both the heroine and the playwright into a tailspin of moral superiority. But Wasserstein's animus against Harriet goes deeper than mere priggish disapproval. What Isn't It Romantic really dramatizes is an old racial myth: Jews are warm and emotional, and WASPs, especially on Park Avenue or Wall Street, are cold fish.
Janie is a gentle freelance contributor to Sesame Street; Harriet is a corporate barracuda. Janie's mother is a middle-aged flower child; Harriet's is a hardboiled, bronzed tycoon. Love, evidently, is only a many-splendored thing if you're not a ritzy goy—a species Isn't It Romantic regards with a mixture of envy, resentment, disgust, and secret, worshipful fascination.
Elliott Sirkin, in a review of "Isn't It Romantic," in The Nation, Vol. 238, No. 6, February 18, 1984, p. 202.