Wendy Wasserstein Gets Spotlight in a New Biography

By Mervyn Rothstein
19 Aug 2011

Wendy Wasserstein

Did writing the book change you in any way?
JS: Because I started the book soon after Wendy died, in the course of doing more than 300 interviews I found that many people were grieving. People were crying and upset. That was difficult emotionally. And also I think that doing a biography of a contemporary makes you think of all the difficult choices you've made in your own life, about your own family secrets, your own struggles with the issues of the day.

Going through that process definitely changes you. It's both a gratifying and a sobering experience. I met Wendy only once, a long time ago, and I can't say I even knew her casually, yet there were many overlaps in our worlds. We knew many people in common, so there was an eerie sense of familiarity in our lives. It made me reflect.

Which of her plays do you think will last?
JS: I think the plays are a mixed bag. In looking at her papers, in her archives at Mount Holyoke, I saw the way she wrote the plays versus the way she wrote her essays. She would sit down and write everything in longhand.

The essays were written almost verbatim the way they would appear in published form. She would just sit down and write them. But the plays — a play is a work of art — were a huge struggle for her. Her gift was in dialogue and character. Her enemy was structure. She had a really tough time figuring out how to corral the characters and the dialogue and the scenes and the thought within the structure of a play. The plays that I think were the most successful were ultimately when she worked with director Dan Sullivan [for example Heidi, Sisters Rosensweig, Third]. They had a wonderful collaboration, because he was very good in helping her see the structure.

Dianne Weist and Charles Durning in Third.
photo by Joan Marcus

She was an incredible workhorse. She would just redo and redo the plays. Anyone who thinks excellent work comes out of the air — it doesn't. It comes out of hard work, and Wendy worked really hard.

It's amazing. In the last year of her life, up until almost the last minute, she did not stop. When she was working on Third, her last play, she was barely able to function, and yet she finished the play, she wrote another essay. She was traveling all over the place during that last year. It's pretty extraordinary.

It's hard for me to evaluate the plays out of the context of Wendy's life, because to me they're so intertwined at this point. Heidi interestingly may wind up seeming the most dated, because it is so much of its moment. It's an interesting play, but I think the character of Heidi is so passive, is such a cipher, that she became a good gathering place for the thoughts people were having at the time. I don't know how well it's going to hold up. Whereas Sisters Rosensweig, which is so much a family story, may last longer. It's probably my favorite. I think she nailed the structural issues. I think it transcends its time better. It has a lot of really great things to say about family relationships. Third [2005, about a liberal college professor who charges a student with plagiarism], a play that not many got to see because it was her last play, has so much intensely beautiful writing. I find it very moving.

I think some of Wendy's best writing is not in her plays. Some of her best writing was in her essays. And the final novel, which is really an unfinished work.

I think she was on to an understanding of her generation and the changing mores and the changing demands on people that I think will hold up over time.

Kim Cattrall and Jamie Lee Curtis in the film adaptation of The Heidi Chronicles.
1995 Turner Pictures, Inc.

Why do you think she had such an effect on people? I had lunch with Wendy twice. I assigned her a couple of articles when I was theatre editor of The Times' Sunday Arts and Leisure section. I interviewed her three or four times for The Times and Playbill. When I taught a theatre class at NYU, she was a guest one night (she wowed the students). I met her once at a cocktail party at the Museum of Modern Art. Each time, she was effusive, filled with laughter. But the meetings were infrequent, and brief. I barely knew her. And yet I was so moved, so upset when I was sitting in the Vivian Beaumont Theater for her memorial service.
JS: For people who met her in person, she had an incredible warmth. When I was doing the research, she seemed so nutty to me in the way that she was proceeding with her life. I thought, why did anybody like this person? She could be so mean to people, unintentionally. But whenever I found a video talk by her, of which there are many online, there was something comfortable and warm about her intellect.

She took everything in. Her plays are not directly autobiographical, but they tell a lot of truths. A lot of dialogue in them is, I think, lifted verbatim from life. She did something a lot of people don't do, which is to listen and make the other person feel as if they're in the room. I think that's extremely powerful and extremely rare. And it's also one way she was able to manage to stay so secretive. She was so good at making the other person feel so at home, so listened to, that they didn't notice that sometimes they weren't listening to her. That was her way of deflecting too much probing.

It was also her willingness to express insecurity in a way that was funny. So many of the issues she was dealing with were recognizable to her audience, so when she died people didn't just feel that a playwright had died. They felt that they had lost a dear friend who understood them. And that's a big loss.

A very big loss.
JS: André Bishop said that the tragedy is that Wendy never got her third act. I think that's true. She was maturing as a writer. The sad thing, among many sad things, is that we don't know what would have come next.

Merv Rothstein's work is often seen in the pages of Playbill magazine and Playbill.com. He pens the monthly A Life in the Theatre feature.

Daughter Lucy Jane (pictured with cousins Jack and Dash) was left in the care of Bruce and Claude Wasserstein.
Courtesy of the Wasserstein family