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The Heidi Chronicles (03/09/1989 - 09/01/1990)


 

New York Daily News: "'Heidi' Lights Up Broadway"

The good news on West 45th St. is that Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles" has survived its voyage from Playwrights Horizons to Broadway in fine form. If anything, the play seems stronger because the actors are playing with a little more bravura in their new and larger home.

Heidi is an art historian, an educated young woman whose rite of passage is the "Clean for Gene" campaign of 1968. Legions of young people thought they were marching to a different drummer back then. Heidi, always a beat away from her friends, watches as they march from radicalism through militant feminism right back to the materialism they thought they had rejected.

Wasserstein is particularly strong at satirizing the excesses of the militant years: There is a hilarious "consciousness-raising" scene (remember all that?) and an equally funny demonstration for "Women in Art." But what gives the play its power is the compassion she develops for her heroine as her friends leave Heidi and her ideals in the lurch.

The radiant Joan Allen conveys Heidi's earnestness and honesty in a way that makes her as appealing as a Jane Austen heroine, not an easy task when Heidi could easily seem priggish. Peter Friedman, as an arrogant womanizer, achieves a similar feat, making us revel in a character we could easily find merely obnoxious.

Boyd Gaines seems even more audacious than before as Heidi's closest friend, a gay pediatrician; his bumptiousness makes him all the more appealing and poignant. The supporting women, all of whom play a variety of roles, are again splendid.

Jennifer Von Mayrhauser's costumes chronicle the sartorial progress of the last 20 years wittily. Thomas Lynch's sets, particularly the empty apartment in which the play ends, also convey the passage of time eloquently. Director Daniel Sullivan has done a marvelous job of fine tuning. I doubt we'll see a better play this season.


New York Daily News
03/10/1989

New York Post: "Hello, I'm the Me Generation"

The Baby Boomers have boomed, the yuppies have yupped, and our stages are taking note. Few boomer plays are likely to be more nostalgic, and even fewer as witty, as Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," which opened last night at Playwrights' Horizons.

The Heidi, whose chronicles these are, starts at a high-school dance in 1965, and ends in a new apartment, complete with a newly adopted baby, in 1988. In between she runs the gamut of our times - or such a gamut as might be appropriate to a white, educated, affluent professional, whose friends are fashion's slaves.

It is, you see, a sheltered gamut, but one with which presumably many theatergoers will be able to identify, and in chronicling it Miss Wasserstein has produced an elegantly entertaining play, eloquent on the vacuous perils of the uncommitted and disconnected.

Although Wasserstein's self-absorbed characters take the Me Generation so seriously that every walk across the road becomes a passage in autobiography, the play finds its firm focus in the character of Heidi herself, and Heidi's struggles in the war for women's liberation.

Heidi is an art historian - a specialist on the role, wouldn't you have guessed, of women in art - who, as she explains, is "neither an artist nor a spectator but a highly trained observer." And it is an observer attitude that the play itself takes to Heidi's saga.

We see 23 years of Heidi (Joan Allen) and her awakening, we see her friends and the two men in her life - one, Peter, a homosexual podiatrist (Boyd Gaines), and the other, Scoop, a womanizing lawyer/editor (Peter Friedman) - all swimming around like happy piranhas in the yuppie aquarium.

Wasserstein takes her Heidi through the lot - from the women's consciousness-raising group right up to the scourge of AIDS - while all the time Heidi, just a little wiser and smarter than the rest, stands outside triviality, safe and secure in her observer role.

Many of this playwright's set pieces are like revue sketches, but beautifully done. For example, the scene of consciousness raising is exquisitely funny in the way it catches the lingo of its time, as does a scene of a group of women proceeding to picket the Chicago Art Museum for its lack of representation of women artists.

Then there is a hilarious skewering of morning chat-show TV: a hostess with the leastest, faced with two guests anxious both to shine and to make her look more stupid than even TV intended.

This kind of darting social satire is right on the mark, and perhaps best of all are Heidi's two lectures on painting, models of parody and perception that give us insight into the character as well as making the gentlest and informed fun of art criticism.

The difficulty of the play is the triviality of its issues and its people. Even serious subjects like women's lib and, seemingly thrown in for serious ballast, AIDS, become trivialized, because everything and everyone is reduced to a chic cartoon joke - amusing but essentially lightweight.

That the play is in 13 scenes provides difficulties for director and designer alike, difficulties of pace, continuity and simply, especially for the designer, suggesting venue.

Daniel Sullivan has staged the play with engaging simplicity, letting the semi-naive, semi-smart Heidi shine gently against her background, and the settings by Thomas Lynch are brightly evocative in suggesting much with little.

A word also for the costumes of Jennifer Von Mayrhauser, which virtually manage to add a comment to the text, and the smooth lighting by Thomas Lynch.

The play is also remarkably well served by its cast, particularly perhaps by its three leading characters, who offer a wonderfully convincing pas de trois for our dirty little times.

Joan Allen, with a lovely look of wary hopefulness, has just the right knowing innocence and amusedly detached charm as Heidi, offering self-doubt sweetly outweighing self-righteousness.

As the two men, Gaines, witty, affected and insincerely sincere, is splendid as the gay doctor, Heidi's one true friend, while as her caddish lover, Friedman admirably combines smartness with pomposity, while exhibiting a horrifying selfishness laced with an even more horrifying charm.

All the other women in the cast, apart from Ellen Parker as Heidi's closest girl friend, who convincingly travels from plump nervousness to Hollywood-tinsel assurance before our very eyes, play multiple roles.

Joanne Camp is brilliant, ranging from lesbian activist to dim TV star, Sarah Jessica Parker has her best bit as a wimpy yet resolute Hollywood sycophant, while Anne Lange does well in roles ranging from wronged wife to newly liberated hausfrau.

"The Heidi Chronicles" is slickly written and glossily packaged. As Miss Bankhead once so memorably remarked on another occasion: "There is less in this than meets the eye." But what does meet the eye, and mind, is unquestionably diverting.


New York Post
12/12/1988

New York Times: "A Modern-Day Heffalump in Search of Herself"

Deep into ''The Heidi Chronicles,'' Wendy Wasserstein's enlightening portrait of her generation, the title character makes a speech to her high school alumnae at a ''Women, Where Are We Going?'' luncheon. In the speech, a tour de force for the author, Heidi vividly describes an aerobics class that proved to be an epiphany. While exercising, she was surrounded by an Inferno of ''power women'' both young and old. With sudden intuition, she realized that as a child of the 1960's - as a woman subjected to judgment by men and as a humanist trying to position herself among feminists - she is stranded, and no one is about to rescue her.

She simply wants to be Heidi, but the closest she can come to self-definition is ambivalence, empathizing with the Heffalump in ''Winnie-the-Pooh.'' As chronicled by Ms. Wasserstein (and as acted by Joan Allen), Heidi's search for self is both mirthful and touching.

In ''The Heidi Chronicles,'' which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons, the author looks beyond feminism and yuppie-ism to individualism and one's need to have pride of accomplishment. We are what we make of ourselves, but we keep looking for systems of support. As Heidi learns, her friends are her family.

Ms. Allen plays the title role with an almost tangible vulnerability and a sweetness that is never saccharine. In her hands, Heidi always remains sympathetic even when she forgets to be self-protective. The role calls for the actress to seem happy (a smile, as for the camera) when she is really contemplative. Ms. Allen fills the role with a quiet gentility, while also conveying Heidi's natural wit.

In ''Uncommon Women and Others'' Ms. Wasserstein offered a collage of Seven Sisters school graduates. In ''Isn't It Romantic?'' she sharpened her focus on a single woman (and her best friend) trying to be grown up. With her ambitious new play, she both broadens and intensifies her beam, to give us a group picture over decades, a picture of women who want it all - motherhood, sisterhood, love and boardroom respect.

The play opens with Heidi as art historian, delivering a lecture on the neglect of female painters from ''the dawn of history to the present,'' and uses that neglect as an artful motif to depict man's exclusionist attitude toward women. During a series of pithy flashbacks, we see Heidi on her own rock-strewn path to liberation. As she moves from high school intellectual to awakening feminist, in the background we hear about political and cultural events. Heidi and her group are emblematic of their time, but the historical references never become intrusive. They form a time line on which Heidi teeters like a tightrope walker.

Around her, women take advantage of opportunity and one man, Scoop Rosenbaum, takes advantage of Heidi. Scoop is an arrogant idealist. Even as he offers Heidi no choice but subjugation to his will, he is becoming a prime mover of his generation, through his high-flying magazine, Boomer, the beacon of the baby-boomer crowd. In one of the play's few minor weaknesses, neither the character nor the actor (Peter Friedman) is as charming as he is supposed to be. One necessarily wonders why Heidi has such a diehard affection for him. Far more believable is Peter Patrone (Boyd Gaines), a hugely successful pediatrician, who is gay. In all matters except sexuality, he is Heidi's soulmate.

Ms. Wasserstein has always been a clever writer of comedy. This time she has been exceedingly watchful about not settling for easy laughter, and the result is a more penetrating play. This is not to suggest, however, that ''The Heidi Chronicles'' is ever lacking in humor.

Several of the episodes are paradigmatic comic set pieces - a consciousness-raising session, the aerobics speech and a hilarious television program in which Heidi, Scoop and Peter are brought together as representative spokespersons. The colloquy is misguided by an airhead talk-show hostess (delightfully played by Joanne Camp). When Scoop becomes characteristically self-serving, the pediatrician steals the spotlight, as is often the case - a credit both to the character and to Mr. Boyd's sensitive performance.

As Heidi's childhood friend, Ellen Parker transforms herself from ''sister shepherdess'' on the front lines of feminism to queenpin of the movie and television industry, trying and failing to convince the heroine to become a sitcom consultant. Ms. Camp, Sarah Jessica Parker and Anne Lange amusingly play all the Jills, Debbies, Betsys and Beckys who complicate Heidi's life.

At a critics' preview, Ms. Allen and Mr. Friedman had moments of uncertainty with their dialogue - in an otherwise confident production (the director is Daniel Sullivan). Among the assets is Thomas Lynch's set design, so assured in its many changes as to make the designer's hand invisible.

Subtly the play parallels aspects of the original ''Heidi'' novel. As we are reminded, in the first two chapters the heroine travels and then ''understands what she knows.'' At the beginning of her journey, Ms. Wasserstein's Heidi is adamant that she will never be submissive, especially to men. To our pleasure, the endearing character finally finds selfless fulfillment. Following the chronicles of Heidi, theatergoers are left with tantalizing questions about women today and tomorrow.


New York Times
12/12/1988

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