Playwright Braved Dangerous Territory, Armed With Humor

By Alisa Solomon

Published February 03, 2006, issue of February 03, 2006.
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Mrs. Plumm, the dotty yet dignified housemother of a New England women’s college dormitory in Wendy Wasserstein’s early play “Uncommon Women and Others,” welcomes her charges to tea by reciting a poem by Emily Dickinson. “The Heart is the Capital of the Mind,” she intones. “The Mind is a single State. /The Heart and Mind together make/A single Continent—/One — is the Population —/ Numerous enough — /This ecstatic Nation/Seek — it is Yourself.”

Then, without pause, Mrs. Plumm instructs the students to bus their dishes.

It’s a classic Wasserstein maneuver: The overriding concern for good manners wittily punctures any pomposity the verse might have puffed into the scene. Audiences have to laugh. Yet Dickinson’s lines linger, encapsulating a truth about the play’s brainy and awkward characters — and indeed about many of the unsettled and unsettling women who would become the protagonists of Wasserstein’s subsequent works.

The poem also speaks to the compassion and fervor beating within Wasserstein’s own brilliant wit and analytical mind. The pioneering playwright and essayist, who believed in the power of humor, words and theater to help heal the world, died Monday of lymphoma. She was 55.

“Wendy wasn’t just a funny writer,” said playwright Tony Kushner, her longtime friend. “She used theater as a vehicle for exploring issues that were bewildering to her, and she wasn’t afraid to walk into dangerous territory.”

In 1977, when “Uncommon Women” premiered off-Broadway, it was still dangerous to populate a play with nine smart and sassy female characters. All the more so because those women were struggling to discover how their first-rate educations could help them find happiness in a world that instructed them to seek it in traditional marriages. (The original cast included Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry and Swoosie Kurtz.) Wasserstein pursued and complicated this theme in “Isn’t It Romantic” (1983) and in her most celebrated work, “The Heidi Chronicles,” for which she won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize.

In this bittersweet comedy, a feminist art historian grapples with the failures of the women’s movement, bravely and brazenly articulating anxieties that some feminists found too troubling to air — even as they busted a gut laughing. (Who can forget the hug-filled scene of professed love and P.C. recriminations in which Heidi attends the Huron Street Ann Arbor Consciousness Raising Rap Group?) “The Heidi Chronicles” moved from Manhattan’s Playwrights Horizons theater to Broadway, and with it, Wasserstein became the first woman to win a Tony Award for best play.

“The Sisters Rosensweig” (1992) was the first of Wasserstein’s comedies to consider Jewish identity directly, as she continued exploring how women sustain their ideals even as they confront their disappointments. The titular three sisters — the play owes much to Wasserstein’s beloved Chekhov — represent different responses to their Jewish American upbringing: the embrace of Jewish success and communal belonging, the pursuit of social justice and utter denial.

Though not observant, Wasserstein identified deeply as a Jew in the secular tradition of cosmopolitanism, curiosity about the world, passion for art and concern for justice. Her Saturday ritual as a child growing up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush area involved morning dance classes and a Broadway matinee. Kushner calls her one of the last of “an endangered species — a good New York Jewish liberal writer.”

Nowhere is this characterization more clear than in the funny and poignant essays that Wasserstein wrote for several magazines and newspapers, most of which were collected in two volumes — “Bachelor Girls” and “Shiksa Goddess.” Droll, direct and daring, these pieces range widely over such subjects as a guide for romance in the 21st century (rule number four: “Instead of waiting four months to get on the maitre d’s waiting list at Nobu, try the Four Brothers coffee shop. There’s nothing as romantic as a tuna melt with fries in a booth, holding hands and talking late about ‘The Magic Mountain’”) and Hillary Clinton’s transformation “from cold manipulator to icon of strength,” accomplished “in the most pre-liberated manner” — surviving the public humiliation of her husband’s infidelity. One essay frankly and warmly discusses her older sister’s losing fight against breast cancer. Another, called “Days of Awe,” recounts her own medical ordeal — and that of her prematurely born baby — after she decided to become a single mother, giving birth at age 48 to Lucy Jane.

One of the most touching essays describes a 1998 project that Wasserstein hatched: She took eight Bronx high school students who never had been to the theater to a season’s worth of shows, because she couldn’t accept the possibly that some New Yorkers never would share in this transporting art form. After a performance of Marcia L. Leslie’s “The Trial of One Shortsighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise & Safreeta Mae,” presented in Manhattan at the Henry Street Settlement, one student wrote in her journal, “I had no urge to wipe my tears away, because it felt as though I was cleansing my soul and cleaning away the dirty film that slavery had left on me.” The program now serves more than 100 inner-city kids.

Wasserstein’s great love — and great legacy — belongs to the theater, which never ceased to astonish her and fill her, every time the house lights faded, with a sense of possibility.

In the introduction she wrote for the published script of “The Sisters Rosensweig,” Wasserstein recounts how she watched the play’s first preview with Andre Bishop, her longtime friend and collaborator, and was both pleased and a little puzzled when the audience became convulsed with laughter. She thought she had engaged serious issues and figured that her sense of her own work must be askew: “That night I felt that if I thought I wrote ‘Medea,’ it would probably in reality resemble the old television show ‘Queen for a Day.’”

She goes back a month into the run and sees something different: “At the end of the evening, when I saw the audience no longer restless, but actually weeping, I thought to myself that this author must be very mature. She must believe in the challenge and tradition of well-structured plays. She must believe there are possibilities. Obviously, then, the author could not possibly be me.”

But of course it was. And it couldn’t possibly have been anybody else.

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