By Robert Simonson
23 Feb 2006
Wendy Wasserstein, who for three decades, through a series of compassionately comedic dramas, charted the strivings and disappointments of the modern American woman, died early Jan. 30 at the age of 55, Lincoln Center Theater confirmed. The cause was lymphoma. Wasserstein's sudden death was particularly startling to followers of the theatre—not only because she had long seemed to possess such a vital and life-affirming nature, but because she and director Daniel Sullivan had only recently opened her latest work, Third, Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Reports of her being on life support in a New York hospital began to emerge during the first week of December. The New York Daily News, citing a source close to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, said "Wendy had been sick for a long time, but she's a private person and kept it quiet. But during rehearsals [for Third] she needed a cane some days."
That Wasserstein should be struck down by cancer is in some respects sadly ironic. A character in Third suffers from cancer. Additionally, her older sister Sandra Wasserstein Meyer—the model of the Sara Goode character in The Sisters Rosensweig—died of breast cancer in 1997.
The partially autobiographical The Sisters Rosensweig, which premiered on Broadway in 1993, concerned the loves and travails of three vivacious and very different siblings. It was Wasserstein's second Broadway hit running—an unheard of feat in the theatre in recent decades. The production followed The Heidi Chronicles, the searching, multi year examination of the women's movement, which put the author on the map and arguably made her the most prominent female playwright in America for the remainder of her life.
Heidi—which transferred to Broadway from an Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons—won Ms. Wasserstein a Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. At 622 performances, it was also a commercial success. A few years later, The Sisters Rosensweig would, too, transfer from Off-Broadway (this time, Lincoln Center Theater) to Broadway and have a healthy run of 556 performances. Both Broadway productions spawned national tours.
In The Heidi Chronicles, Joan Allen play Heidi Holland, an art historian. The play begins during the days of feminist and political idealism in the 1960s, and then trails the adventures of an increasingly saddened Heidi as she watches her ideals, romantic prospects and sense of a feminine community fall away during the rapacious and morally feckless Reagan era. Breaking down during a speech late in the play, Heidi says "I don't blame any of us. We're all concerned, intelligent, good women. It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together."
One could argue that, like Heidi, Wendy Wasserstein was a "concerned, intelligent good" woman who spent her career making sure her fellow females never felt completely stranded—as least not by their self-appointed playwright chronicler. Her first play to gain attention, Uncommon Women and Other, was about a group of college students at Mount Holyoke trying to locate their senses of self and ways in the world during a socially turbulent time. (The original production at Marymount Manhattan Theatre boasted a now legendary cast including Swoosie Kurtz, Glenn Close and Jill Eikenberry.) Isn't It Romantic, from 1981, meanwhile, looked at two young women as they tried their luck at the 1970-80s concept of "having it all."
Though the overarching themes of her plays were serious in nature, Wendy Wasserstein was nonetheless primarily known as a writer of comedies, whose way with a punch line and topical joke was often compared with that of Neil Simon. "It's a serious play, but hopefully it has a texture of humor mixed with the sadness," she said of her 1997 play An American Daughter. "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."
Adding to her general image as a comic writer was her vivid, animated public persona. Apple-cheeked and curly-haired, she always seemed to be peeling into a high-pitched giggle or relating the events of a recent convivial lunch with one of her many prominent friends. Among these were composer William Finn, playwright Terrence McNally, critic Frank Rich, playwright Christopher Durang, director James Lapine and LCT artistic director Andre Bishop. She was, in fact, notorious for being incredibly well connected and a great collector of friends. (Those friends sometimes found their names —as well as those of countless other contemporary figures—popping up in their pal's stage works).
"Wendy was a wonderful friend and terrific collaborator," said lyricist David Zippel, who collaborated with her and Cy Coleman on the musical Pamela's First Musical. "The warmth, wit, humor and intelligence of the characters she wrote was a reflection of Wendy, herself. Most of her work was as a playwright and author which is a rather solitary existence. Consequently, she loved the company that comes with working on a musical. Work sessions with Wendy and Cy were filled with laughter. We spent the first part of every session catching up on one another's lives. The longer we laughed the longer we could postpone actually working. But when we did get to work she was focused, dedicated and creative."
In recent years, Wasserstein seemed to have lost her magic touch with critics and audiences. An American Daughter, her final play to reach Broadway, ran for only 89 full performances. Reviewers wrote that the drama—about a woman doctor of old American stock whose life becomes fair game for the media when she is nominated for the post of U.S. Surgeon General—was overextended, with two many characters and plot lines. (After its New York life, the play was later revised by the author and seen in regional theatres; it was also a television film.) Old Money, which debuted at LCT in 2002, was criticized for similar properties, as was what seemed like the author's ongoing preoccupation with the upper echelons of society. The play was set in an Upper East Side mansion during two eras—the first and the last decades of the 20th century—and looked at the way things had changed (and hadn't changed) over time.
Third, in contrast, was considered by many her best play since Rosensweig, in large part because it reexamined and questioned the liberal values that had long been staples of Wasserstein's writing. The play's central figure, Laurie Jameson, is a pioneering professor at an elite Eastern school, whose life and career become unhinged when she provokes a standoff with a blithely contented student named Woodson Bull III. She perceives "Third" to be "a walking Red State" who embodies everything about America that she deplores.
The ongoing evolution of the liberal ideology was a topic that continually intrigued her. "I started thinking about the politics of the theatre, which often involves an attack on the right wing," she said in a 1997 interview. "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 we're the good guys. One thing I hope about this play [An American Daughter] is that it's not clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys."
Wendy Wasserstein was one of four children born to Morris Wasserstein, a prosperous Brooklyn textile businessman, and his wife Lola. The parents pushed their children to succeed and got the wished-for result: all four thrived in their professions. Georgette became the owner of the Wilburton Inn in Manchester, VT; Sandra was a senior partner at the consulting firm of Clark & Weinstock; and Bruce is the chairman and CEO of the investment banking firm Lazard.
She once described her mother as being like "Auntie Mame," ordering Thanksgiving dinner from a deli, dressing flamboyantly and taking her kids to Broadway musicals. Ms. Wasserstein attended the Yale School of Drama, where her thesis play was Uncommon Women and Others. It was picked up and produced by T. Edward Hambleton at his Phoenix Theatre at Marymount.
Wasserstein occasionally worked in other areas. She wrote the screenplay to the 1998 film "The Object of My Affection," and penned the children's book "Pamela's First Musical," which she adapted with David Zippel and the late Cy Coleman into a musical. She also published the collections of essays "Shiksa Goddess (Or, How I Spent My Forties)" and "Bachelor Girls." "Shiksa Goddess" contains an essay on the near miraculous birth (at age 48) of her first child, Lucy Jane.
"A play is a piece of art," Wasserstein said about her profession. "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."