Wendy Wasserstein is laughing. It's the Wendy Wasserstein trademark laugh high-pitched, almost a giggle, joyous, infectious. "I love being a working playwright," she says. "When I fly to Europe, one of my greatest joys is writing down my occupation on the landing card: Playwright. It's great." And she laughs again.
Wasserstein has good reason for her love and her laughter. The witty, ebullient playwright ever smiling, ever cheerful is a Pulitzer Prize winner, for The Heidi Chronicles. Heidi also won the Tony Award as Best Play, making her the first woman ever to win the Tony as the author of an original play. Then came The Sisters Rosensweig, a success both on and Off-Broadway.
Her newest play, An American Daughter, is being presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Cort Theatre on Broadway, directed by Daniel Sullivan, the director of Heidi and Sisters. In the play Kate Nelligan plays a prominent professor, the daughter of a well-known United States Senator (portrayed by Hal Holbrook). Nelligan's world is shattered as she awaits Senate confirmation as Surgeon General while the press investigates her family and friends. "It's not unlike what happened to Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood and Lani Guinier after they were nominated by President Clinton for major positions in his administration," Wasserstein says over a caffe latte at an Upper West Side restaurant. "That was the inspiration. But there are a different set of circumstances."
Wasserstein says that in some ways the play is a change of pace for her. "It's political," she says, "which is different for me, though it's still an effort to write a well-made, one-set play about smart people. It's darker than my other plays. There's a different kind of unhappiness in it. I started thinking about the politics of the theatre, which often involves an attack on the right wing. And I thought it would be interesting to look inward, to look at liberals, and to say that whatever state we're in, we're not in this state because there are bad guys and good guys and we're the good guys. One thing I hope about this play is that it's not clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys."
Even though it's political, the play is about more than politics, she says. "It's about a woman who did almost everything right and did one thing wrong. She is a serious good person, but she has done something wrong. When you're younger, you think that if you organize your life, you can do so to a point where everything will go well. And then you realize that there's randomness. There's also true tragedy, which one unfortunately can't avoid, but even without that things are still not controllable."
The theme, she says, "is about choice in the time in which one lives. It's about a certain sort of privilege, and what that privilege means in people's lives, whatever the privilege is intelligence or money or something else and in the end, is it really privilege?"
Sounds pretty serious and it is. But this is a Wendy Wasserstein play, and so there must be comedy. "Innately, I always go to the comedic skill," she says and she laughs that characteristic laugh again. "It's a serious play, but hopefully it has a texture of humor mixed with the sadness. I always want to mix the two. First, because it's interesting to write. Second, because it's interesting to go into rehearsal with actors who are able to mix the two. And third well, I went to see Chekhov's Three Sisters the other night. It's a great play, a work of art and Chekhov has both humor and sadness."
Wasserstein has had two hits in a row which is wonderful, but which also creates tremendous pressure for a threepeat. Does she feel the pressure? She laughs again perhaps a little louder than before.
"You feel enormous pressure," she says. "You think, 'Oh my God, I don't know if I can do this.' You feel the pressure on all sides. You feel that this is a really good company of actors, and you don't want to let them down. You don't want to let Lincoln Center Theater down. You don't want to let the audience down."
"You're talking to Miss Anxiety here," she says, laughing again. "If the conversation continues like this, I'll order a piece of cake! The only good thing about always feeling anxiety with a play is it certainly makes you not just sit on your laurels."
Sitting on laurels is something Wasserstein is unlikely ever to do. In fact, she says, looking ten years down the line, she still sees herself writing plays. "A play, one way or another, is about truth," she says. "It's about a voice, a vision the writer's, the director's, or both. That's why I love working with Dan Sullivan for the third time. The plays have a lot to do with him, his sense of craft, his sense of the theatre, his sense of how a relationship with an artist should be.
"A play is a piece of art," she continues. "And art comes from somebody with an urgency. I think that what's great about theatre is you still have the possibility of one writer and one director saying: `We see the world this way. Here's a point of view. And we're going to throw it out there, and we're not going to do it because we've taken 47 market polls on what the audience wants. We're doing this because this is how we see it.' Theatre isn't prefabricated. It isn't that watered-down stuff. Theatre is about words and craft and a point of view. You miss that in life now."
And this time she doesn't laugh.