The Playgoer: Wasserstein

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006


I recommend Michael Feingold's loving as well as candid appreciation (he writes as one who knew her when...)

Terry Teachout takes the opportunity to show some genuine critical soul-searching. How do you eulogize an artist you harshly criticized?

The NY Post reminds us:

It bothered Wasserstein that so many local kids couldn't afford to see the theater for which New York is famous. With that in mind, she founded the Theater Development Fund program Open Doors in 1998, pairing bright students from the
city's public high schools with mentors. She personally recruited Broadway's best and brightest — writers, directors and choreographers — to take the kids to the theater and then out for pizza-fueled discussions.

Effective? Well, at least she did something. (Maybe someone will take up that mantle and pioneer a more affordable program not limited to Broadway.)

I myself grew to respect Wasserstein while working on a profile of her for a Groliers encyclopedia entry recently. Watching the archived video recording of the original Heidi Chronicles (starring Joan Allen) I was struck by the tangible electricity in the small Playwrights Horizons house back in 1987. I'm not sure if the play "holds up" today without context--but no matter. It spoke to its time and to a demographic of post-60s women in an unvarnished and honest way. Contrary to some perceptions, she was by no means a sentimentalist. Beneath the quips and clever characters, her plays were uncompromisingly about loneliness and the sacrifices that follow from independence. In her later works she seemed to have scrambled a bit to find the right subject for the times (politics, "old money"), but that problem always plagues an artist who speaks so spot-on to the time of his or her youth.

One hilarious and now prescient scene I recommend from Heidi Chronicles: the lunch with the TV exec. The show being pitched is to celebrate young women who are over feminism and just want to have a good time (profiting from the advances made by their mothers, of course) buying shoes and getting laid. Sound familiar? The haunting clincher of this perfect mini-satire comes in the casting of the role of the exec's eager nodding assistant in the original production: a young Sarah Jessica Parker. Whatever the ups and downs of were of her particular works, Wendy knew her historical moment.

And think of this: she was one of the last American playwrights who could reliably open a play on Broadway. (Now that August Wilson is also gone, that leaves Terrence McNally, maybe, and, now, possibly John Patrick Shanley.) But even her last play, Third--from just last month--was premiered by her patrons at Lincoln Center in their smaller space. When even Wendy Wasserstein is no longer seen as commercial enough...god help the American theatre.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting the lack of "comments" on two posts for WW. Says something perhaps about the insularity of NYC's elite, writing plays that don't really get under anybody's skin, that, no matter how "political," aren't really effective at disturbing the dominant power structure. The American theatre isn't "in trouble" because WW isn't seen as commercial; it's in trouble because the American theatre kept producing WW's plays even as they became more irrelevant and ineffective, passing up the chance to welcome new writers whose current work is at least as effective and insightful as WW's was back in the day.