Many of the speakers at the event, titled "A Remembrance of Wendy Wasserstein," seemed unreconciled to the fact that their vibrant, life-loving friend and colleague had died Jan. 30 at the age of 55. Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, and a lifelong friend of Wasserstein's, spoke of trying to gain distance and perspective on her death. "But I don't know if I can achieve distance," he said, "or want it."
A series of video clips, many from "The Charlie Rose Show," preserved the characteristics of the woman they remembered: generous, irreverent, with a ready smile and infectious giggle. And composer William Finn—who remembered when he and Wendy were shushed by other diners in restaurants for "laughing too loudly"—tried to capture her spirit in a new song titled "Magic" and sung by Darius de Haas. The refrain ran:
"I don't know what you had,
But you had it to everyone,
Perhaps an indication of the strong devotion Wasserstein inspired in those who knew her lied in a series of scene-reading from her plays. Several were enacted by the actors (many now famous) who originated the roles. Alma Cuervo, Jill Eikenberry, Swoosie Kurtz, Ann McDonaugh and Ellen Parker plays a scene from Uncommon Women and Others. Cotter Smith and Meryl Streep did the television interview scene from An American Daughter. (Streep starred in an early reading of the drama.) And, perhaps most movingly, Joan Allen, the original Heidi in The Heidi Chronicles, returned to the stage to act against her old co-star Boyd Gaines.
Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig was represented by a film clip from the premiere production. And Linda Lavin, Robert Klein and Julie Dretzin read a sequence from Isn't It Romantic?. All eras of the playwright's life were represented in the proceedings. Mary Jane Patrone spoke of the inspiring and endearing girl she met when attending Mount Holyhoke. "If you would have told me then that Wendy would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and spokesperson for her generation, I would have said, sure. But I would have said the same if you told me she would be a senator or a world famous choreographer."
Yscaira Jimenez recalled being chosen, as a high schooler, to participate in Wasserstein's "Open Doors" program, which takes inner-city kids to theatre productions, and of the efforts the writer took to keep in touch and help her in her post-graduation endeavors. "Thanks for the mitzvah," she said, using a Yiddish word she had learned from her mentor. Director James Lapine and playwrights Terrence McNally and Peter Parnell read from a Wasserstein essay about her arduous effort to give birth late in life to her only child, Lucy Jane.
Director Daniel Sullivan, who directed many of her plays, remembered her as unfailingly civil. Whenever he suggested a change to one of her lines, "She'd never say no. She wouldn't even disagree. She just wouldn't do it." He added that he'd never have to leave her behind completely. "She told me to be kind, and to be patient with actors. In that way, she'll always be with me."
One speaker unfamiliar to almost everyone was British writer Flora Fraser Soros, who friendship led to the two switching apartments for a time just after the success of The Sisters Rosensweig. Wasserstein didn't fare to well in London. After invitations from Soros' friends petered out, she moved to a room at Claridge's. But Soros found herself the toast of the town, simply because she was endorsed by Wendy and staying in her apartment. The Wasserstein parents took her out, and Wendy's friends entertained her and showed her the city.
"Few of us will receive the outpouring of grief that greeted Wendy's death, or deserve it," observed Bishop. "Lucky me. Lucky us, to have known you."