A CurtainUp Review
An American Daughter
By Elyse Sommer
Twenty years ago Wendy Wasserstein began her funny yet serious examination of the lives of her contemporaries with a play called Uncommon Women In it she followed a group of college friends, (one a writer and Wasserstein's own alter ego), to six years past graduation. One character's (Rita) declaration epitomized these young women's developing sense of empowerment: "When we're thirty we're going to be pretty fucking amazing."" y the end of the play the age-thirty target date was moved to forty.
With the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles> Wasserstein became the dramatic doyenne of the feminist movement. Her next play the entertaining The Sisters Rosensweig while the hit of the Lincoln Center season was a bit like the truism about a Chinese meal--it was fun while it lasted, but didn't provide much long-lasting nourishment. Now she's moved inside the Washington Beltway and trained her feminist lens on a full-blown, full-grown, forty-plus amazing woman named Lyssa Dent Hughes (Kate Nelligan).
At first it looks as if being amazing >is pretty damned wonderful. Lyssa is an eminently successful doctor about to become the highest medical professional in the country, surgeon general. What's more she's beautiful, blonde and slim; married to an amiable sociology professor (Peter Riegert); has two children, (who we must assume to be attractive since they remain off-stage and logged onto various Internet chat rooms throughout the play). She's well connected in a world that thrives on networking. Dad, a United States senator (Hal Holbrook), loves and supports her despite their political differences. Her closest friend dating back to prep school is a medical colleague (Lynne Thigpen) and her college classmates included other amazing women such as Hillary Clinton.
So what's wrong with this picture?
All the wisecracks notwithstanding Lyssa's friend Dr. Judith Kaufman personifies the walking wounded of the amazing> life. She's dealt with being a multiple minority (black, female, Jewish), but she can't cure the pain of being an oncologist who can't always save lives or the pain of not being able to create life despite years of in vitro.
There's Quincy Quince (Elizabeth Marvel), former student of Lyssa's husband Walter who seizes upon the achievements of the forty-something feminists less out of conviction than the desire to quickly grab the gold ring on the merry-go-round of media visibility. (Is her name a sly rhymed take on mince, as in making mince meat out of everything her older "sisters" stand for?) And let's not forget Walter himself. His supportiveness of his wife's dedication to the nation's health comes into question with every self-deprecating remark about his almost-forgotten liberal tract, but especially so when we watch him light a cigarette and blow smoke into the sun-drenched, book-lined living room of their Georgetown home. It's a little like bringing ham into a strictly kosher kitchen.
To turn smoke into fire, the alliteratively named playwright, has invented a television journalist named Timber Tucker (Cotter Smith), and a right-wing, homosexual "friend" Morrow McCarthy (Bruce Norris). What sets the fire is a twist on real life incidents surrounding the positions of women in the very feminist-conscious but me-first- survival-conscious Clinton administration.
I won't give away the plot by telling you whether the media blitz that animates the play's action scuttle Lyssa's nomination or whether the spin doctor (Andrew Dolan) brought in by her father saves it? Nor will I tell you if the marital undertow pulls Lyssa and Walter under or together? Or whether Dr. Judith will be able to drown her regrets with her muffin crumbs during Taschlish (the festival of regrets).
Unfortunately, I also can't tell you that this jury-gate drama is more of Wendy-à-la Uncommon Women/Heidi Chronicles and less another Rosensweig confection. While An American Daughter tackles many concerns of the amazing women of Wassertein's generation, and does so with a nice mix of humor and sadness, it's too much of an everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach to be a truly satisfying experience.
As she has in the past Wasserstein, has borrowed from real life to vivisect issues about which she is passionate--and in this case, angry. The amazing women she went to college with have won equal access to power. But whether that power is being surgeon general, attorney general, First Lady or Secretary of State, these women must face the slings and arrows of intense personal scrutiny not given to their male counterparts. And if that weren't enough, they must deal with the disappointment in those of their generation who are less than what they could be, the dynamics of power within their marriages, the fact that no matter how deserving, they may not do or have it all. All this, plus a backlash from pseudo-feminist sharks like Quincy Quince to whom these "uncommon women" have become stepping stones, the older generation, the Establishment.
See what I mean about the kitchen-sink approach? These many inspirational sources will hold few surprises for any reasonably informed theater goer, and neither will the dramaturgy. Those who saw The Sisters Rosensweig, will feel as if a friend has moved and invited you to their new house, done< by the same decorator (John Lea Beatty) but in a different neighborhood. And as Beatty's settings are always a pleasure to look at, so are Jane Greenwood's costumes, especially Penny Fuller's top-to-toe matching ensembles.
My bottom line opinion. Director Dan Sullivan keeps his large cast moving along at a crisp pace and the cast--particularly Nelligan, Thigpen and Penny Fuller as the Senator's wife--are terrific. Hal Holbrook, Bruce Norris and Cotter Smith are fine, though I felt Peter Riegert was not at his best as Walter. Even when she's not in top form, Wendy Wasserstein is better than a lot of other playwrights. She has a voice that is always worth listening to, and is creating an oeuvre of work that anyone interested in the theater in general, and contemporary women playwrights specifically, will want to see in its entirety. I do not agree with those who feel her humor detracts from her substance as a playwright. Humor has long been a means to enable us to cope with and look at sadness. However, I do think An American Daughterwould hold up better in the long run if it hadn't tried quite so hard for quite so much easily identifiable topicality.