March 28, 2015

"The Heidi Chronicles" Still Speaks to Me

Several waves of nostalgia swept over me as I watched the revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, which is running at the Music Box Theatre through Aug. 9.

The first came because, like Wasserstein who died from lymphoma in 2006, I’m a baby boomer and I can think of no other play that captures so well the struggles of the women of my generation to have it all: a great career, a great family, a great sex life.

The second wave came because I remember seeing—and being shaken by—the original production when it opened in 1989, just three years after Newsweek magazine had infamously declared that a woman over 40 had “a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.”

The questions about the costs of being a liberated woman that The Heidi Chronicles wrestled with not only resonated with me but resounded widely. The play, which follows its titular character from her prep-school days in the twilight of the “Mad Men” era through the grown-up compromises she makes two decades later during the Reagan years, won both the Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The cast that brought that original production to life was pitch perfect too. Boyd Gaines, in his Broadway debut, won the first of his four five Tonys as Heidi’s soul mate and gay best friend Peter. Peter Friedman, still a stalwart of the off-Broadway scene, played Scoop Rosenbaum, the charming but egocentric cad who breaks Heidi’s heart over and over again. 

And Joan Allen, now too long absent from the New York stage, played Heidi, who becomes a celebrated art historian, with the kind of spiky brittleness that many smart women of the time assumed as we tried to shoulder our way into the all-boys’ clubs. I ached when Heidi’s façade shattered in the famous second-act speech in which, unmarried and childless, she confesses to feeling stranded by the promises of the women’s movement.

So I'm sorry to say that I didn’t feel that way when Elisabeth Moss, best known as Peggy Olsen, the up-from-the-secretarial-pool ad woman on TV’s “Mad Men,” delivered the “stranded” speech in the current production. That could be because I'm older and have made peace with feminism's contradictions.  But I suspect there's something more at work.

Some critics who felt the same way have said it's because the play is dated and women no longer have the same concerns. But those folks obviously haven't looked at the still small percentages of women in Congress, running Fortune 500 companies or getting plays produced on Broadway. 

I think the real problem rests with Moss, who is a talented actress but lacks the chutzpah for the role. Born in the same year that the Equal Rights Amendment failed to win ratification, she hasn’t figured out how to convey the exhilaration and exhaustion of a woman proud to be a pioneer but tired of carrying the flag (click here to read about her views on feminism). Too often she cedes the center of attention to others.

Tracee Chimo, an inveterate scene stealer, snatches up a good bit of that attention and runs away with it with her portrayals of four different women who become Heidi’s fellow travelers at different points in her life (click here to read about how the actress created each character). 

The audience lapped up Chimo’s vibrant irascibility the night my friend Priscilla and I saw the show and I couldn’t help wondering what she might do if given a crack at the title role.

But even as is, The Heidi Chronicles is still worth seeing and talking about. Priscilla and I spent the first half hour of our post-show dinner at Joe Allen debating how much things for women have changed over the last quarter of a century. We both acknowledged that the glass was still at the midway mark but we felt differently about whether that meant it was half empty or half full.

But we completely agreed on one thing: both of us wished that Wasserstein, who continued to write about the lives of boomer women in her six subsequent plays, were still around to chronicle the way we live now.

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