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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
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
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
abstractly conceived play that suffered under Mark Brokaw’s
direction, it play tends to gloss over the complexities of its
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
find and fight her way out of the unprogressive ’60s, into the
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,
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,
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
when three very different middle-aged Jewish-American sisters —
a Massachusetts. housewife and lay analyst, an eccentric travel
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
lots of humor regarding their mutually shared unhappiness with
and with the men in their lives (with no apologies to Chekhov), it
is their questioning whether to perpetuate Jewish traditions and
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
It’s extremely structured; I sort of insist on that," says
in one of her most revelatory comments. In the best of Wasserstein’s
plays — "The Heidi Chronicles," "The Sisters
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
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
"Isn’t It Romantic," "Miami," and her most recent
"Old Money," have earned her, predictably, both praise and
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
Among Wasserstein’s many awards are the William Inge Award for
Achievement in the American Theater, a Guggenheim Fellowship and,
most recently, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome. She has
at Columbia University and holds an honorary doctorate from Mount
Holyoke College, where it all began. How uncommon can you get?
— Simon Saltzman
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