All that’s right and wrong with “The Heidi Chronicles,” the 1988 play by the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein getting its first Broadway revival, is on display in a scene that takes place in a TV studio with its three major characters.
Heidi, portrayed by Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson in Mad Men) is an art historian whom we follow over more than two decades, staring with a high school dance in 1965, as she aims for happiness in both her career and (less successfully) with her romantic relationships. In the TV scene, which takes place in 1982, she is on a panel with her two male friends Scoop and Peter on one of those perky morning TV shows called Hello New York. Every time the host asks her a question, one of the two men interrupts and answers it for her. This is a spot-on specific illustration, as well as a fine metaphor, for the ways women are routinely silenced in a male dominated culture. It’s moments like this one in The Heidi Chronicles that help explain why Wasserstein’s play was embraced as an insightful portrait of a generation of women facing old pressures and new challenges – and why it won both the Best Play Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The scene begins with the TV host, April, introducing the segment: “We’re speaking today with members of the baby boom generation. The kids who grew up in the fifties, protested in the sixties, were the “me’s” of the seventies, and the parents of the eighties.”
This is one of the many moments of gentle satire in Wasserstein’s play, comic set pieces that often still amuse. But, a quarter century later, “The Heidi Chronicles” doesn’t just mock this urge to attach decades with taglines, turning life into labels. The play at times seems guilty of the same kind of glib shorthand. Although it is directed by Pam MacKinnon, best-known for such deeply nuanced work as the revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” watching “The Heidi Chronicles” feels too often like being trapped in a trend piece in New York Magazine.
This is the sort of play where the audience doesn’t need to figure very much out; the characters frequently speak as if they are on that TV panel.“You ‘quality time’ girls are going to be one generation of disappointed women,” Scoop (Jason Biggs) tells Heidi. “Interesting, exemplary, even sexy, but basically unhappy—the ones who open doors usually are.” Scoop and Heidi first meet at a Eugene McCarthy for President campaign headquarters in New Hampshire in 1968, with Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart playing on the soundtrack. In that first meeting, he is a self-satisfied, name-dropping editor of The Liberated Earth News. Over the next several scenes he morphs over the years into a self-satisfied, name-dropping editor of Boomer Magazine. We discover he is a serial philanderer at a baby shower for his wife in 1980, with John Lennon’s Imagine on the record player.
Peter (Bryce Pinkham), a kind and wise-cracking cynic whom Heidi first meets at that high school dance (The Shoop Shoop Song playing), becomes a cover story in Boomer, “The Best Pediatrician in New York Under Forty” – and eventually comes out to Heidi as gay. (Near the end, there is what now feels like an obligatory and too-indirect reference to the AIDS pandemic.) Susan (Ali Ahn), the fourth friend we follow over the years, turns from a boy-obsessed high schooler in the 1960’s to a “radical shepherdess” of a women’s legal and health collective in Montana in the 1970’s to the V.P. of a Hollywood studio in the 1980’s, who says things like “I’m not political anymore. I mean, equal rights is one thing, equal pay is one thing, but blaming everything on being a woman is just passé.”
If Heidi escapes the broad brush of caricature, she comes perilously close to feeling like an Everywoman. Two things save her from drowning in generalization. The first is her career as an art historian. In prologues to both Act I and Act II, we see her offering fascinating lectures about obscure women painters through the ages. In one of these lectures, she describes an art historian as “being neither the painter, nor the casual observer, but a highly informed spectator” – which works as a description of one of her functions in the play.
The second save is the casting of Elisabeth Moss, in part (let’s be honest) because of our association of her as Peggy. We’re not given much access to Heidi’s interior life until near the end, when she returns to her high school as a distinguished alumna to deliver a talk on the topic, “Women, Where Are We Going,” and instead talks impromptu and in meltdown mode about her visit to the gym, and her feelings of inadequacy and isolation. “I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together.”
Heidi and Scoop are supposed to be attracted to one another, and care for one another, over a period of decades. He marries somebody else, because he knows Heidi won’t be happy with just being his wife; she’ll want to pursue a career, which will make them competitors. We are told all of this, but it was hard for me to see this dynamic between Moss and Jason Biggs, who’s done better work recently as Larry in “Orange Is The New Black.” This is not entirely his fault. The banter between them is nowhere near as witty as it’s supposed to be. Bryce Pinkham (who starred as Monty in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Marriage”), fares slightly better as Peter.
Perhaps ironically, the rest of the cast comes off much better, all of them playing multiple characters in a series of scenes such as a woman’s consciousness raising group in Ann Arbor in 1970. These scenes still work because we don’t necessarily expect any depth from the characters, and because Wendy Wasserstein, who died way too young at 55 some nine years ago, had a first-rate ear and a great comic eye. Greater depth arguably came later in such of her plays as “The Sisters Rosensweig” and “An American Daughter.”
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The Heidi Chronicles
at the Music Box Theater
Written by Wendy Wasserstein
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Sound designer: Jill BC DuBoff
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs, Bryce Pinkham, Tracee Chimo, Ali Ahn, Leighton Bryan, Elise Kibler, Andy Truschinski