An Uncommon Woman
by Anthony Chase
Wendy Wasserstein's Third opens at the Kavinoky
It was just four years ago on New Year’s Eve that the lights of Broadway were dimmed in memory of Wendy Wasserstein, who had succumbed to complications from lymphoma the day before. She left a legacy of plays that had helped transform the American theater. The last of these to be produced during Wasserstein’s lifetime, Third, the story of a conflict between a feminist college professor and a male student from a privileged background, opens this week at the Kavinoky Theatre with Eileen Dugan in the leading role.
In reviewing Third, Ben Brantley of the New York Times opined that a generation of theater-goers had been using her career as the time clock for their own lives, as she traced her way from college graduation through the stages of life. That was certainly true of me.
I first became aware of Wasserstein in 1978 when Uncommon Women and Others was filmed on the Trinity College campus, where I was an undergraduate. Many of my female classmates were used as extras in the film, which featured Swoosie Kurtz, Meryl Streep, Jill Eikenberry, and Alma Cuervo. None of us had ever heard of any of these upstarts. It certainly never occurred to us that we’d ever hear of any of them again—Wasserstein included.
How wrong we were.
Eleven years later, The Heidi Chronicles, building on themes used in Uncommon Women, would become an off-Broadway hit, move to Broadway for a long run, earn a Tony award, the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Wasserstein.
Wasserstein only lived to be 55 years old, and her dramatic output was actually quite small. Still, this cheerful and unassuming woman loomed large in the American theater. Before she arrived on the scene, American women who were conflicted yet confident, determined yet witty, independent yet vulnerable, were actually uncommon on the stage. That’s not true anymore.
When Lincoln Center announced the premiere of her 1992 play, The Sisters Rosensweig, it racked up the largest advance ticket sale for a non-musical in the history of Broadway up to that time. Wendy Wasserstein had proved, again, that women should command attention in the American cultural consciousness.
Of course, it seems that every couple of generations, this point needs to be proven again, and Wasserstein’s future reputation is by no means secure. The great female playwrights of the English Restoration, for instance, Aphra Behn and Susanna Centlivre among them, were the equals of their male counterparts—Wycherley, Congreve, Farquhar—but would be ignored by the male critics and scholars who dominated subsequent generations, and nearly forgotten. Another American woman playwright who enjoyed the distinction of racking up the highest advance box office sales in the history of Broadway, Mae West, scored a huge hit with her 1926 play, Sex, but saw her 1928 play, Pleasure Man, closed down by the police after its second performance. Despite the fact that she duplicated this success in Hollywood, West’s work is not included in anthologies, she is never mentioned in theater textbooks, and her work is out of print. In fact, the only American woman whose plays are consistently included in the American repertoire is Lillian Hellman, and even she had to go on a deliberate publicity campaign in the 1970s when she saw a list of the nation’s 10 greatest living playwrights and found that her name was missing. One other, Lorraine Hansberry, is remembered for a single play, A Raisin in the Sun.
While Wasserstein seems to sustain her status for the moment, there are warning signs. The word “topical,” so often used to marginalize plays by women, by gay writers, by writers of color, is frequently used to describe Wasserstein’s work. The word implies that the themes of her plays are not “universal.” Wasserstein herself was concerned that critics often found her plays superficially comical, whereas she thought of them as funny, yes, but also pointedly political and philosophical.
In Third, for instance, the main character, Laurie Jameson, is a learned but smug liberal-feminist college professor. When one of her male students, Woodson Bull III, who goes by the preppie nickname “Third” and is attending school on a wrestling scholarship, writes a sophisticated paper on King Lear, she accuses him of plagiarism. She has no evidence of this beyond her low opinion of his social class and her view of him as a child of privilege. Jameson’s own reading of Lear sets the stage; she sees Lear as the story of an old man who gets what he deserves at the hands of two daughters “with guts”—Goneril and Regan. She sees Cordelia as just the sort of wimp the patriarchy adores. Yes, there are contemporary topical issues embedded in this play, but no more so than in David Mamet’s Oleanna (which the Kavinoky has also produced), and there are also universal issues in the confrontation, as much as there are in the confrontations between Antigone and Creon—which was, after all, a play about ancient burial practices—at least on its surface.
I used to love seeing Wasserstein at the theater, chatting with her buddies, Christopher Durang, Tony Kushner. I treasure my memories of seeing the original productions of all of her major plays. I interviewed her once, in Seattle, where Daniel Sullivan helped ignite her career—she was fascinated when I told her I had seen the Spanish premiere of Las Hermanas Rosensweig in Madrid. I thought of her this week when New York City’s mayor, businessman Michael Bloomberg announced that a record-setting 48.7 million tourists had visited the Big Apple last year, marking a 6.8 percent increase from 2009. Bloomberg credited New York’s investment in the arts and culture for this statistic—ironically, at a time when Erie County is cutting investment in the arts. In an essay for the New York Times, Wasserstein once wrote: “As far as I’m concerned, every New Yorker is born with the inalienable right to ride the D train, shout ‘Hey, lady!’ with indignation and grow up going regularly to the theater. After all, if a city is fortunate enough to house an entire theater district, shouldn’t access to the stage life within it be what makes coming of age in New York different from any other American city?”
In 1998, Wasserstein personally started a program to take smart, underprivileged students from New York’s public high schools to the theater. Hmmm. Bloomberg noted that New York City is the destination for roughly one third of overseas visitors to the US, making New York the most popular overseas destination in the country by far. I see the day-visitors to Niagara Falls coming through out airport, but I wonder, how could Buffalo tap into even a minute percentage of those 48.7 million tourists?
Then, last night I made a rare trip to the suburbs to visit the Apple Store. I was startled to be greeted not by some techno-geek but by one of my former theater students who was working there. In fact, three of my former theater students were working there. The place was crawling with artsy types. Between comments about the latest innovations in the Apple product line, this bright and engaging young woman managed to give me the 30-second pitch for an idea she has for a regional theater that produces regionally oriented theater in Buffalo and taps into both the local and tourist market. She’s already been to the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State. She was already seeking potential investors. I thought to myself, “Uncommon Women and Others.” Wendy Wasserstein lives and there is hope for our future!
The Kavinoky production of Third has been directed by Peter Palmisano. In addition to the sublime Eileen Dugan, who plays Laurie Jameson (the role created by Dianne Wiest), the cast features Saul Elkin, Patrick Cameron, Anne Roaldi, and Colleen Gaughan. I adored the play and find it to be the equal of Wasserstein’s best work. It is well-suited to the Kavinoky company. Call 829-7668 or visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for tickets.
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