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A CurtainUp Review
The Heidi Chronicles
By Elyse Sommer
Yes, the play's time frame and the themes explored are no longer ground breaking as they were in 1989 but this new revival is dated in a good way. Wasserstein's funny yet poignant script holds up remarkably well, and the issues Wasserstein explored have changed rather than gone away. Anyway, there's nothing dated about a story that focuses on relationships with friends and lovers, and the way choices we make entail inevitable disappointments and regrets. Whatever the era in which we come of age, our hopes and choices for "having it all" are timeless, as is the pain when the choices made don't lead to the anticipated happiness.
Wasserstein's contemporaries couldn't have wished for a smarter, sharper more endearing chronicler of their generation. And current theater goers, whatever their age or sex, couldn't wish for a more ideally cast Heidi than Elizabeth Moss. Though her resume includes a previous well received Broadway debut ( Speed the Plow ), she's best known as Peggy Sawyer, who navigated minefield of the macho advertising sphere of the sixties. So add the casting to the current production's timeliness. And, since Heidi is the main character, this is a group portrait and fortunately, that portrait is enriched by the entire cast which includes Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham — Biggs as Scoop Rosenbaum who has a penchant for ranking everyone by letter grade and is the epitome of Heidi's succumbing to the smart woman bad choice syndrome; Pinkham as the guy who is her perfect soul mate but is also gay. The fact that the director is Pam MacKinnon, who has risen to the top ranks of a profession dominated by men adds another piquant now element.
All this said, Wasserstein above quoted defense of women categorized as authors of "small tragedies." As she so aptly put it, small or large "they are our tragedies, and therefore large and therefore legitimate."
Indeed The Heidi Chronicles is not an epic Greek tragedy. For that matter, it's not really a tragedy. Instead, true, to its title, it's a chronicle of a quarter century of social changes as witnessed through events in the lives of the title character and her friends. While Heidi is the main character this is a group portrait. Wasserstein's gift for comedy makes everyone's journey consistently amusing. Yet there's a deeply poignant sadness in Heidi's story. While her championing of women artists and her indepen dent spirit tie her to the women's movement, she's nevertheless a lone traveler.
Maybe it's because this production is so well done, that besides being as engaging as ever, it struck me as being much deeper and fully rounded dramatically. For all the humor, every scene works as a building block for the overall theme — from the prologue lecture about women in art by a mature and successful Heidi to the first scene's comic flashback to Heidi and her friend Susan at a high school dance. The emphasis on women's issues notwithstanding, the theme is universal: how people find their way in life and in their particular historic time, and come to realize that "having it all" isn't necessarily synonymous with happiness.
While Heidi is the play's cynosure character, the others too are fully dimensioned with their own choices to grapple with. That allows us to be more amused than offended by the love of Heidi's youth, the obnoxiously macho Scoop Rosenbaum.
In addition to the main players there are nine other female characters, with Leighton Bryan, Tracee Chimo and Elise Kibler each ably taking on three. Their persona, costume and hairdo changes are as swift and smooth as the scene to scene transitions. And the multi-tasking isn't just a case of economizing, but adds to the bounce and buoyancy of the production.
Except for the Prologues at the top of acts one and two, each scene focuses on one or more of the other characters, with the first act actually focusing on Scoop. It's his wedding to which Heidi and Peter are invited because they're the most interesting people he knows. Yet, being a successful young lawyer about to become an even more successful magazine publisher married to a pretty, well-connected wife once again reveals its downside. For all his ego, Scoop has chosen an "A" wife; feeling the "A+" too much of a challenge for the comfort zone of his self-image. And so his marriage is hardly dream stuff.
Under Ms. MacKinnon's well-paced direction, the cast makes the most of the richly comic dialogue and the ironic take on the paths chosen by some of this boomer generation.
Specifics about the acting must, of course, begin with the way Elisabeth Moss inhabits the title role. She conveys Heidi's independent spirit with verve and manages to retain a touch of the observer's separateness. She hits the emotional bulls eye with her delivery of the long speech at her high school's "Women Where Are we Going" luncheon. What starts of as a rambling detour from her topic turns into a heart-tugging description of an in her gym's locker room while listening to and watching a group of women with all the trappings of success but from whom she suddenly felt alienated and "stranded" which is totally counter to what she thought the feminist movement was all about.
Jason Biggs more visibly than Moss evokes the passing of time with his body language. He's almost too good at playing the opportunist and womanizer so that you tend not to see the charisma that makes hims so irresistible to Heidi. Bryce Pinkham, who left the Tony-winning musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder to play Peter Patrone, has the showier of the two male roles. And he makes the most of both its comic and more emotional opportunities.
Both men and Ms. Moss are especially terrific in one of the play's best scenes — a TV interview in which the three, now all stars in their own right, are being interviewed for a program about successful members of the baby boom generation with both men shamelessly hogging the limelight with Moderator April (Tracee Chimo) doing nothing to steer the spotlight to Heidi. Chimo, a proven scene stealer in Circle Mirror Transformation and Bad Jews does it again in this as well as two other roles.
Ali Ahn who plays Susan has a showcase turn in another ironically comic high point. It's a Ladies Who Lunch scene in which Heidi sees that her friend has gone Hollywood in a big way.
John Lee Beatty's initially bare, but increasingly more complex scenery. Everything is enhanced and illustrated with projections by Peter Nigrini that range from illustrations of paintings to accompany Heidi's lectures, to newsreel shots of the various political events of the period. Costumes and hairdos by Jessica Pabst and Leah J. Loukas neatly convey the changing styles of the years covered.
The sadness that The Heidi Chronicles leaves you with, that Wendy Wasserstein no longer with us (she died at 55 9 years ago) to add to the considerable body of work she did produce in her all too brief life. To read more about her life and work see the Wasserstein page in our playwright's album. You may also want to read Julie Salamon's excellent biography Wendy and the Lost Boys. . .The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein and/or our review of it here