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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 21,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

An Uncommon Woman: Wendy Wasserstein

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author Wendy

Wasserstein once told an interviewer, "Because of Mozart, it’s

all over after the age of seven." Perhaps because Wasserstein

suspected that writing a good play may be more difficult than writing

a symphony, she waited until she was 28 to write "Uncommon Women

and Others" (produced at the Phoenix Theater in 1978), the play

that launched her estimable career.

An uncommon woman then and now, Wasserstein will be the guest lecturer

for the Princeton Public Library’s Caroline Llewellyn Champlin Writers

Talking Series. Her lecture, rescheduled from the fall of 1999 when

the premature birth of her daughter, Lucy Jane, prevented her

appearance,

takes place at Nassau Presbyterian Church, Thursday, February 22,

at 8 p.m.

Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Wasserstein set "Uncommon Women,"

her first successful play, at Mount Holyoke College, where she

received

her bachelor’s degree. She earned her MFA from the Yale School of

Drama. Certainly "Uncommon Women," in which eight Holyoke

women consider their future at the height of the women’s movement,

set a direction for Wasserstein. Continuing to focus in her subsequent

plays on both the failings and the promise of America’s social and

political structure, Wasserstein proved that her skill as a dramatist

was as sharp as her New York-flavored sense of humor.

Wasserstein’s latest play, "Old Money," opened last December

at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater to generally unfavorable

reviews and closed after its scheduled six week run. While it is not

a particularly revelatory play about the way successive generations

use money for power, social prominence, and fame, it is full of smart

talk. Setting her play in an East Side mansion at the turn of the

century and the 1980s, Wasserstein uses a very clever dramatic conceit

to draw both contrasts and similarities between two generations of

one very rich New York family. The members of the past generation

are viewed as ghostly and typically conscious of class distinctions;

the present group, a more hard-boiled and mercenary generation, is

characterized by a hunger for celebrity and notoriety. A very

ambitious,

abstractly conceived play that suffered under Mark Brokaw’s

overzealous

direction, it play tends to gloss over the complexities of its

characters,

to the extent that we never really get to care about them. I don’t

think we’ve seen the last of "Old Money."

"I start writing the play when I have an idea where the play is

going to `arc’ to or land on. Then I know that, in fact, it’s a play,

that it’s starting somewhere and going somewhere," Wasserstein

tells author and playwright Buzz McLaughlin in his invaluable book,

"The Playwright’s Process." Her journey to make a play a play

is most visible in "The Heidi Chronicles" (1988), for which

she won a host of awards that include the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony

Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Prize.

In "The Heidi Chronicles" Wasserstein brings into perspective

the poignancy of our watching passionate and enthusiastic Heidi

Holland

find and fight her way out of the unprogressive ’60s, into the

enlightened,

yet unsettling ’80s, where she finds herself facing a future, although

armored with pride and self-sufficiency, marooned and unfulfilled.

The play was remarkable in that it questioned, without sermonizing,

the effects of women’s emancipation. And now, decades later,

Wasserstein,

like Heidi, has chosen single motherhood (her daughter’s father’s

identity has not been revealed) in her own path to self-fulfillment.

Later in McLaughlin’s book, to which such playwrights as Edward

Albee, Lee Blessing, Athol Fugard, Emily Mann, and Arthur Miller also

contribute commentary and techniques, Wasserstein talks about going

back over her material again and again as she works: "Maybe I’m

afraid of moving on with it, and maybe I’m insecure about it, but

maybe I’m still finding the play, and reviewing it again and again,

and thinking I want to get in touch with this again, so I’ll know

where I can go."

Perhaps this is why Wasserstein has said that it takes her years to

write a play. It was worth waiting for Wasserstein’s biggest success

"The Sisters Rosensweig," that starred Jane Alexander,

Madeline

Kahn, Robert Klein, and Frances McDormand. The play moved from Lincoln

Center to Broadway for an extended run in 1993.

With this play Wasserstein proved she could write a

substantive and yet highly commercial comedy. Just consider the

possibilities

when three very different middle-aged Jewish-American sisters —

a Massachusetts. housewife and lay analyst, an eccentric travel

writer,

and the eldest, the first woman director of an international Hong

Kong bank — come together to celebrate the latter’s 54th birthday.

While the sisters diverse lifestyles, careers, and personalities

inspires

lots of humor regarding their mutually shared unhappiness with

themselves

and with the men in their lives (with no apologies to Chekhov), it

is their questioning whether to perpetuate Jewish traditions and

culture

that raises the play above the ordinary.

"Because my basic instinct is one that is undisciplined, I apply

a lot of form to my writing. I want it to take a shape on some

level…

It’s extremely structured; I sort of insist on that," says

Wasserstein

in one of her most revelatory comments. In the best of Wasserstein’s

plays — "The Heidi Chronicles," "The Sisters

Rosensweig,"

and "Uncommon Women" — politics, social commentary, moral,

and ethical issues spark the characters and drive their conflicts.

In "An American Daughter" (1997), the formality she structured

is palpable, but we also see how the issues take control. For all

that, the play, inspired by the headline-making Zoe Baird affair —

remember the corporate woman lawyer nominated by President Clinton

for attorney general and forced to withdraw her name when it was

learned

that her family had not paid employment taxes on their domestic help

— is perceptive and passionate.

If "An American Daughter" sacrificed drama for polemics, the

message is clear: that we should continue to challenge our fear of

uncommon women, and let the heartland take notice. If the play was

more politically propelled and more determinedly overwritten than

anything Wasserstein had written before, it is also, as you would

expect, literate, topical, and witty. Wasserstein’s other plays

including

"Isn’t It Romantic," "Miami," and her most recent

"Old Money," have earned her, predictably, both praise and

criticism.

Wasserstein wrote the screenplays for "House of Husbands (with

Christopher Durang) and "The Object of My Affection" (based on

the novel by Stephen McCauley), and the teleplay for "Uncommon

Women" and "Kiss, Kiss Darling, Drive She Said," adapted

from John Cheever’s "The Sorrows of Gin." Her books include

"Bachelor Girls" (a collection of essays published by Knopf),

and the charming "Pamela’s First Musical" (Hyperion), a must

for children.

Among Wasserstein’s many awards are the William Inge Award for

Distinguished

Achievement in the American Theater, a Guggenheim Fellowship and,

most recently, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome. She has

taught

at Columbia University and holds an honorary doctorate from Mount

Holyoke College, where it all began. How uncommon can you get?

— Simon Saltzman

Wendy Wasserstein, Princeton Public Library, Nassau

Presbyterian Church, Nassau Street, 609-924-9529. $10, $5 for seniors.

Contact the circulation desk. Thursday, February 22, 8 p.m.


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