Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wendy, What Went Wrong?

I just finished Julie Salamon's biography of Wendy Wasserstein, Wendy And The Lost Boys.  I don't think Wasserstein was a playwright of the first rank, but she did write well about a generation that she knew intimately.

She came from a high-achieving family.  The generation before her were Polish Jews who came to America and made their money in ribbon manufacturing. Her older sister Sandra and older brother Bruce were highly successful in the business world.  Wendy, the youngest, born in 1950, felt constant pressure from her mother, Lola, to lose weight, marry well, and, in general, do better.

It was also a tight-lipped family.  Wendy didn't know until she was an adult that Sandra's father had died young so Lola married (in a Biblical move) his younger brother, who was Bruce and Wendy's father.  She also didn't learn for some time that she had an older brother Abner who had mental problems and was put away in a home, and never discussed.

Wendy, on the outside, was bubbly and girlish, but, according to Salamon, had the Wasserstein drive that made her feel both superior and inferior. It hurt her that she didn't do well academically, but she didn't show it.  One thing she could do was write, as early mentor Joseph Heller saw, and she was accepted to the Yale School of Drama, where she met people like Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.

A New York girl, she continued to meet and charm people in the theatre, such as up-and-coming producer Andre Bishop, and by 1977 had a well-reviewed production of Uncommon Women And Others (featuring Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry and Swoosie Kurtz) running off-Broadway.  It was based on specific women she met attending Mount Holyoke--some of whom weren't pleased. In fact, the play caused quite a few angry letters from alumnae.  Still, Wasserstein was able to capture her Baby Boomer generation, where women still went to sex-segregated colleges, and were taught gracious living, but also saw their status as changing--that maybe there was more to life than marrying well.  But she was smart enough to see it was a mixed blessing, and funny enough to make the story (with a weak plot) entertaining.  She was also hardheaded enough to rewrite and cut as much as necessary to make her work stageworthy.

Her next major play, Isn't It Romantic, looking into her Jewish background, was another success.  It's funny, but often, critics complained, in a sitcommish sort of way.

Her next play was her first Broadway production, and probably her ultimate statement, The Heidi Chronicles.  We follow Heidi Holland (a role originated by Joan Allen) and her Boomer friends from high school in the 60s up through life in their 40s.  Trends come and go, and, in the end, Heidi decides to have a child on her own, which may have been a brave choice for a woman at the time, but was put down by many feminists as a cop-out.

The play was a hit, and won Wasserstein a Tony and a Pulitzer.  The Heidi Chronicles still entertains, but I'm not sure, as the Boomers' fascination with themselves (which Wasserstein mocks) starts to fade, that it has aged well.  We still have the characters, and some decent jokes, but is it all about a Boomer girl whining that life wasn't as easy as she'd hoped?

Wasserstein was now a big name.  She made large fees giving speeches and writing articles, books and movie scripts.  But her central focus was still the theatre.  Her next play, The Sisters Rosensweig, was directly about her family (though she left Bruce out), and though it was a hit, she seemed to be repeating herself, drawing from the same well.  Wendy herself thought the play was darker than her earlier work, but it still came out as comedy (partly because actors like Madeline Kahn make everything comedy).

Her next play, about politics, An American Daughter, flopped.  Still, she was trying to stretch, and would continue to do so until her death--I can't say much about her later work since I didn't see or read any of it.

Meanwhile, her life took a chapter out of The Heidi Chronicles.  She'd had affairs, and plenty of crushes (often on gay men), but had always turned away from marriage.  Now in her forties, she wanted a child, so tried to become pregnant.  After she'd almost given up, she had a daughter, Lucy Jane, when she was 48.  However, it was a rough pregnancy and she was weakened.  She never completely recovered, and in her 50s, suffered from severe ailments, including Bell's palsy.  Some believe the fertility treatments could have been part of the problem, but no one can be sure.

She died of lymphoma at the age of 55. (Her sister, Sandra, had already died of cancer at 60, and her brother, with whom she'd place her child--sticking with family till the end--would die soon after of heart failure at 61.) As she'd kept her illness secret, it came as a shock to most people.

It's hard to say where her career would be today if she'd stayed at full strength.  She seemed to be turning a corner, and some insiders thought her last works were deeper than anything she'd done. Still, it's hard to change once you've become a brand name--the public usually doesn't like it.  But it would have been nice to see if she could have managed it.

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