New York City Theater
"The Heidi Chronicles"
Music Box Theater
The first Broadway revival of the indelibly funny, touchingly sad “The Heidi Chronicles,” in a dutiful production, shows that women can still yearn to have it all but at a price. Some things have changed, however: Feminism has given way to humanism and the play (it won the 1989 Tony and Pulitzer), now suggests undertows regarding other marginalized groups. Not just the heroine but her two would-be lovers pursue an elusive emotionalism.
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who died in 2006 at age 55, was writing from experience. As witty as the titular character, she shared first names taken from children’s lit. Wendy “mothers” the Lost Boys in “Peter Pan”; Heidi, the name of the famous book, both grow up to be independent. The first of two parts in the famous Swiss novel, “Heidi,” shows the young girl “traveling and learning”; in the second part, she “uses what she knows.”
Heidi Holland, whose chronicles make up the play, knows plenty – intellectually – as an art history professor championing the accomplishments of unsung female painters. In love with two unobtainable men, the gay Peter Petrone, whom she meets at a high school dance, and the philandering Scoop Rosenbaum, whom she meets at a Eugene McCarthy rally, Heidi can’t build a life with either. Instead, she turns elsewhere, to such sisterhoods as the Huron Street Ann Arbor Consciousness Raising Rap Group, to a baby shower, finally to a power lunch, always as a disillusioned outsider. “I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded,” she says. “I thought the point was we were all in this together.”
Bookended by scenes in 1989 and bisected by lectures on female artists, “Heidi Chronicles” leads us through the development not only of Heidi but the times and music. Projections of current events position us between scenes as do songs ranging from “The Shoop Shoop Song” at a high school dance to ”You Send Me,” “Respect” and “Imagine.”
Even more than in the original production, however, it’s clear that neither Peter nor Scoop actually “fit in,” either, but remain outsiders. It’s no accident that one is gay, the other Jewish.
Give director Pam MacKinnon credit for adjusting the balance among characters, as she brilliantly did in her 2012 production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” This time, however, MacKinnon neglects giving the evening a spine. The production is drifty, aloof, infecting not only the pace but the performance of Elizabeth Moss in the leading role.
As Heidi, Moss is more observer than participant, a position reinforced by those lectures on art and women, superbly delivered alone at a lectern. Although the character as written does stand back from action at times (she hangs out in the back row of exercise class), should she be this, well, accommodating? Best in the more emotional moments, Moss, surely because of the direction, seems too laid back.
As Peter, Bryce Pinkham is wonderful, edgy and poignant, slinging Wasserstein’s dialogue with sardonic but always compassionate humor. As the licentious Scoop, Jason Biggs is gruff, egotistical, glib and seductive, the kind of man mothers warn against.
If Wasserstein had lived, she no doubt would have further explored the dynamics of independent women, their men and children. (Wasserstein had a daughter at age 48). It’s a loss we can obviously not repair. Meanwhile, we have, even in a lesser production, this bright and insightful play.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 9, 2015