By Pat Launer
Bright and funny, sweet and meek;
This was Wendy Wasserstein week.
Three nights of Wendy and her ‘sisters’
And all their (undesirable) Misters.
And all they’d optimistically planned;
I hope Wendy’s happy in NeverLand .
It was a bittersweet treat to spend the week revisiting the early plays of the late, much-lamented playwright Wendy Wasserstein. In conjunction with the 13th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival, North Coast Repertory Theatre presented a Tribute to an Uncommon Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein.
Wasserstein, who died of lymphoma at age 55 this past January, put her guts right out onstage. She presaged every aspect of her life, especially in these plays from the ‘70s and 80s, and then went on to fulfill just about every one of her predictions. She was among the first to capture the angst of real women, the driven Boomers of her generation; she spoke their words, their hopes and fears and challenges. She chronologued their development, from college days to pushing 40. It was all about coming of age in/with the Women’s Movement and wanting to have it all – a husband, a family and a successful career. And what comes up again and again in her work is that it just isn’t possible. Something has to give; one of those elements has to be compromised. She demonstrates it in each of her characters, over and over. The men don’t want their wives’ careers to trump theirs, or their wifely or motherly responsibilities. The most ambitious of the women make their compromise in not having children, or they let their husbands languish and ultimately divorce. Think of the women you know; I did. How many of them really managed to have it all – a career as successful and high-powered as they dreamed plus a thriving, mutually satisfying marriage and kids that they raised and are proud of? I can’t really come up with anyone in my world-space who meets all those criteria, can you?
Wendy herself realized that it wasn’t going to happen for her the way she and her friends had always fantasized. So, at age 48, in 1999, she had a baby, never revealing the father. Maybe it was, as she quipped in Isn’t It Romantic, a “turkey- baster .” It turned out to be a very difficult pregnancy and delivery, chronicled in detail in a piece in The New Yorker which ultimately found its way into her book of essays, “Shiksa Goddess (or, How I Spent My Forties).” The baby was born 3 months premature and weighed less than 2 pounds. She had hyaline membrane disease (respiratory distress). No one talks about whether or not she has had subsequent problems, which are extremely common in premies that early and small. Having Lucy Jane (named for the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – the Beatles and John Lennon’s death, feature prominently in The Heidi Chronicles; and Wendy’s stand-in in Isn’t It Romantic was named Janie) fulfilled Part 2 of her Having It All fantasy. But she never managed to find the Nice Jewish Boy her mother wanted, or the Man of her Dreams whom she couldn’t manage to create in her plays, either. When she died, though she had myriad friends, and was reportedly beloved by all, she was still alone, just as Holly and Janie and Heidi and most of her other heroines wind up in her plays – all smart and funny, witty and hopeful, sweet and self-effacing, a little overweight, a little shleppy/shapeless in dress, with frizzy, unkempt hair — a great friend, a professional success, but imbued with a sense of loss and an inner sadness that Wendy never manages to overcome – on or offstage.
Three months ago, Wendy’s first novel, “Elements of Style,” was published. It’s about upscale, post-9/11 New Yorkers; the central character, Frankie Weissman , is a single-mom pediatrician who admits to “ossifying loneliness.” Last fall, Wasserstein’s final play, Third , opened at Lincoln Center . Its hot-flashing heroine is 54 years old, a college professor who’s a single mother — yet another strong, independent, vulnerable, emotionally unfulfilled Wassersteinian woman. As Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, the play displayed “a rueful awareness of death and seasons past.” Chilling to read in retrospect. And what’s more, he said, it revealed a belief that “life is an unending identity crisis.” Poor Wendy. She never could feel quite comfortable with who or what she was. And maybe that reflects all of her generation – and beyond.
When the three plays this week were over, at the end of The Heidi Chronicles, I wept. In the play, Heidi has adopted a child, but she’s alone. And we get the feeling she always will be. And that baby won’t dissolve her insecurities and indecisions. And that little girl, far from being “the heroine of the 21st century,” will still grow up in a world ingrained with the same old traditional gender roles and expectations. In fact, there’s evidence of societal and feminist regression since the marches, demonstrations and consciousness-raising of Wendy’s peers. Wendy didn’t get the chance to take us further into the latest years of our lives, to see if she ever could come to terms, settle in, make more fulfilling choices, compete equally and not be judged – in her own mind or the minds of men. But it wasn’t just us Boomers who were affected by the plays and the realities they underscored. Rhianna Basore , 26, who portrayed my daughter Janie in Isn’t It Romantic, was weeping, too. It’s so sad for all of us – women, the society, Lucy Jane and the theater community. It was our opportunity for communal grieving.
But it was also a great opportunity to celebrate Wendy, to get to know her again, and better. In many ways, it was preferable, more satisfying, to see these plays as readings than as full productions. I liked all of them more this time around, in this format. The overly schematic structure of the plays – the male voice repeatedly reading from the antiquated, anti-feminist rulebook of Mt. Holyoke in Uncommon Women; the answering machine messages in Romantic; the art lectures in Heidi – are more acceptable and less intrusive in a reading. We get to focus on Wendy’s wonderful way with dialogue, the all-important friendships, male-female relationships and, adding another vital layer in Romantic, the mother-daughter interactions. Wendy’s memories revive each era of her plays, as forcefully in their own right as August Wilson ’s do his. If you missed these readings, you get another chance to enter Wendy’s World. The Old Globe made a sadly prescient decision to stage The Sisters Rosensweig , a Brooklyn Jewish riff on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (three women experiencing, each in her own way, the lonely peaks of success); previews begin July 15.
And now, a bit bout the readings. Each was impeccably cast, well directed and excellent acted, with very minimal rehearsal time.
Uncommon Women and Others , directed by Rosina Reynolds, covered The Early Years. Five alumnae of Wasserstein’s own alma mater, Mt. Holyoke , a tea-pouring Seven Sisters school, meet to compare their youthful aspirations (six years earlier) with their less-than-stellar late-20s realities. Kristen Mengelkoch was wonderful as Holly (the Wendy character), with her slight dishevelment, quick wit and outstanding comic timing. But she nailed the undertone of melancholy, too. Each of the other women – Kimberly Parker Green, Brooke McCormick, Kathryn Venverloh , Amy Biedel , Glyn Bedington and Rachael van Wormer – created a sharply focused character. As the biggest cynic of all, the lusciously nasty, promiscuous Rita, Wendy Waddell was a hoot. Jonathan Dunn-Rankin lent his stentorian tones to the narration.
Isn’t It Romantic found Wendy’s stand-in, Janie Jill Blumberg (delightfully, empathically portrayed by Rhianna Basore ) in her 30s and contemplating her next move – career, husband, family – still trying to have it all, but not being able to move on or make decisions. Rhianna , having heard that Wendy always wore red sneakers – whether to the gym or a formal event – paid tribute to Wendy by doing the same. As the high-energy, dancing, advice-spewing Jewish Mom. I was channeling my mother. Leigh Scarrit was terrific as the WASPy executive mother of Heidi’s best buddy, Harriet (pertly played by long-legged Christy Yael Lipinsky who, it’s hard to believe, with her statuesque model’s look, gave birth only a few short months ago). Matthew Thompson and Lance Smith were marvelously monstrous as the two unlikable guys in the young women’s lives. The cast was rounded out by Tom Zohar reading stage directions – also very funny as the Russian taxi driver; and Craig Huisenga as the nice-guy doesn’t-have-too-much-to-say or can’t-get-a-word-in-edgewise Jewish father. Todd Salovey and Emily Cornelius were inspiring directors.
The Grand Finale was Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Heidi Chronicles, which also made her the first woman to win a Tony Award as the author of a Best Play (1989). There was some history-making in the production, too. It was a reunion of the cast from the 1992 production of The Heidi Chronicles at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company, directed by the late, great Will Roberson. In the other nights’ readings, the actors looked at their scripts when they weren’t performing. But these folks, under the direction of David Ellenstein, watched each other. That was particularly poignant in the case of the three veterans of the play: David Ellenstein as the flip, womanizing Scoop, who’s always loved Heidi but just can’t bear the competition of coming “home to an A+” woman; Steve Gunderson, first-rate as Heidi’s cynical, funny, nice-guy gay buddy Peter (stand-in for Wendy’s lifelong friend, playwright Christopher Durang); and the magnificent Lynne Griffin, who was in every way, channeling Wendy Wasserstein. From her look to her humor, her melancholy to her deep understanding of this time, this era and this woman, she was riveting – and heartbreaking. The three obviously took such joy in reprising these roles, and showed real admiration for each other – whether on or off the stage – that it energized the entire production, which was already electrifying. Stellar support was provided by Moira Keefe, as one of those girlfriends-for-life; and Kimberly Parker Green, Amy Biedel , Rachael Van Wormer and Joey Landwehr in a variety of well-etched roles. Sometimes, when a reading is so good, I long to see a full production. But this, and the others, seemed far more satisfying this way. No intrusion of props, set or action; just the raw beauty of Wasserstein’s words, and the spot-on characters and relationships she created. Exhilarating and tear-jerking. Whatta time in the theater.
MORE THEATER IN THE JEWISH ARTS FESTIVAL
Todd Salovey, who’s the artistic director of the whole Jewish Arts Festival, celebrating its Bar Mitzah this year (lucky #13) is premiering a new work, Blessings of a Broken Heart, which he’s adapted and directed, based on a book by Sherri Mandell. It’s the deeply moving story of a woman whose son was tragically slain by a terrorist. Todd promises that the healing journey is searing, courageous and life-affirming. Tuesday, June 20 on the Lyceum Stage.
IN THE NEWS
….Mo’olelo Theatre was just voted Best New Theater Company by San Diego Magazine’s Readers and Editors.
… Miracle Theatre Productions, under the aegis of Paula Kalustian and Jill Masaros , has decided NOT to bid on the Theatre in Old Town space that is now up for lease renewal. The State has imposed prohibitive restrictions – including requiring historical theatrical presentations in the theater a minimum of 6 hours a week. It seems to me that if that kind of programming is so important it can be farmed out/sub-contracted to a third party, perhaps recreating the melodramas that were in the Theatre when I first moved here. Shame on the State for making it prohibitive, instead of facilitative, to present good, solid, long-running commercial theater in that space. So, the upcoming open-run of Das Barbecu is likely to be Jill and Paula’s last production in the space. It’s a fitting finale. They’re pulling out all the stops, making maximal use of the ‘big barn’ space, and Paula’s tapping into all her connections to SDSU, where she’s taught in the Theatre Department for a dozen years. Three cast members and two understudies are SDSU alums, as are most of the design staff — set, lighting, costumes, tech director, carpenters — a total of 16 people onstage and behind the scenes. The show, a comic riff on Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is a c ountry-Western musical fable of love vs. greed, replete with mismatched lovers, dwarves, giants, a cursed golden ring and a live outlaw band. The familiar former-SDSU faces include Nick and Rebecca Spear, fresh from their triumph in No Way to Treat a Lady, and Alison Bretches , who’s done a lot of kick-ass choreography around town. Also in the cast, that Chorus Line hoofer Steve Anthony and the killer-voiced Jenn Grinels (who first appeared at the Theatre in Old Town in Beehive). Should be a hoot and a holler. But the loss of a bona fide professional theater company in that theater space would be a real tragedy. Paula says they’ve had a great run at the theater the past 14 years; she and Jill are very proud of what they’ve done there, and they’re on the prowl for a new producing space. Stay tuned.
…There’s a new voice in town: VOX NOVA THEATRE COMPANY, which kicks off with a fundraising premiere, Monday, June 12. Founded by Executive Artistic Director Ruff Yeager and Associate Artistic Director Kirsten Brandt, this new play development company opens in the Lyceum Theatre, with the workshop/staged reading of a farce called Oedipus in the Tragicomic Bathtub, written by Yeager, directed by Brandt. The all-star cast features Priscilla Allen, Laura Bozanich, Patricia Elmore-Costa, Phil Johnson, Jeannine Marquie, John Martin, Mike Sears, Matt Thompson, Wendy Waddell, George Weinberg-Harter and Jeff Wells. For info: it www.voxnovatheatrecompany.com .
.. and a new theater space: ion theatre is putting the finishing touches on a new downtown theater space, to be called the New World Stage, at 9th Ave. between E and Broadway (917 9th Ave.). Artistic director Claudio Raygoza and director Glenn Paris have been busting their butts to convert a large, dilapidated warehouse into a working theater space in just five weeks – at the same time they’re rehearsing and mounting three shows, trying to get the word out and, as Claudio puts it, “finding time to work, eat, breathe and sleep like a normal person.” Fat chance. Krapp’s Last Tape & Not I by Samuel Beckett, directed by Glenn Paris, open on Wed. June 14 at 8pm; The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Claudio Raygoza, featuring DeAnna Driscoll, opens Friday, June 16 at 7:30pm (with inaugural celebrations before and after the fundraising event/show). Oh, and did I mention that both Claudio and Glenn are also performing? Each directs the other. Talk about your homegrown organic theater…
… Open House… The Old Globe is hosting a free Open House on Saturday, June 17, for a family event featuring live performances from the Summer Shakespeare Festival, backstage tours… and an appearance by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth herself (played by none other than Globe – and audience — darling Katherine McGrath). 9:30-1:00 on the Globe Plaza . Jack and Lou and Craig and Darko and Kimberly King will be there… will you?
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Pulp – side-splitting spoof of lesbian pulp fiction; terrific ensemble
A MOXIE/Diversionary co-production, at Diversionary Theatre, through June 11
Crave – very well done, but not for everyone (dark, confusing, disturbing, depressing)
At Lynx Performance Theatre space in Clairemont, through June 11
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – drop-dead uproarious. RUN, don’t saunter, to see this side-splitting spoof of Broadway shows, with the mega-talented Off Broadway cast (local understudy Matt Weeden performs this week). Limited engagement; what are you waiting for?
At the Theatre in Old Town , LAST CHANCE: through June 11.
Atwater Fixin ’ to Die – unsatisfying play, unsavory man, but tour de force performance by Jeffrey Jones
At Cygnet Theatre, through June 18
The Violet Hour – lovely production of a thought-provoking play by the prolific, Time-obsessed Richard Greenberg
At the Old Globe Theatre, through June 25
Zhivago – the world premiere musical is here at last, with all the romance and extravagance you anticipated
At the La Jolla Playhouse, EXTENDED through July 9.
Okay, enough with the June Gloom – let’s get this summer going .. at the theater!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.