The Music Box Theatre
April 1 2015
It’s 1977. The room is absurdly grandiose, in the way that ostentatiously expensive hotels always are. Tasteless but enormous chandeliers set the tone. There is a wedding, an important socialite wedding, happening. Acquaintances of the Groom are seeking escape. But the Groom hunts them out, because even though David Cassidy is a guest, they are, to the Groom, the most interesting people in the room. One of the group is the woman he really loves, his long-time on/off lover. Eventually, they are alone and he explains that he could not marry her, she is an A+, a world changer, a woman who wants the same challenges, success and achievements as he does. He could not deal with the competition she would pose. Understandably, this news greatly affects her, hurts her, shocks her.
Because she knows what he says is true.
This is the revival of The Heidi Chronicles, the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Wendy Wasserstein, directed by Pam Mackinnon, and now playing at Broadway’s The Music Box theatre. The play won the Tony Award in 1989 too and was, then, something of a refreshing, stinging, cause célèbre.
Now, in the “enlightened” 21st Century, it has lost none of its power and insight, although some ways of representing ideas and concepts seem slightly outdated. It is a play about the inequality women endure every day in almost every aspect of life, the way women treat women badly, viciously even, and the pains, pleasures and pitfalls of enduring friendships. The themes about friendship see the play reach its most acute and passionate apex; few will watch those scenes and not see themselves, their lives, reflected in some aspect of the central relationships that play out across the decades through which the narrative courses.
Universality is the key here. Wasserstein’s characters might be American, but the issues, conflicts and conundrums which engulf them are universal. Men still treat women appallingly; women still treat women appallingly; dreams and aspirations of career and personal life seldom are harmonious; there are not enough good men for the good women or men of the world who want both a worthwhile career and a loving, meaningful partnership.
In the modern world, people don’t appear to talk about these themes the way these characters do. There seems almost an acceptance that things have moved on, that the lot of women has improved substantially. Curiously, seeing this play now, set specifically in the periods in which the scenes were originally set, merely re-inforces its power; indeed, it emphasises it, making clear how little has changed despite the passing of the years.
The form Wasserstein uses to portray the life of her central character and her circle remains fresh. As both Acts open, the audience sees part of a lecture the art historian, the titular Heidi, is giving to a captive, attentive audience. She is making the point that little time is given, in the world or art history, to the important female artists and she demonstrates her point by reference to specific works and artists. The sense of the forgotten, overlooked woman is deftly set up in these scenes. But, more than that, the specific art works deal in apparent riches, apparent entitlement, spilt or tousled accoutrements and the notion of the woman not facing her reality, but avoiding it.
Examples prove the point, but lessons are not necessarily learnt. This is as true for the subjects of at least two of the paintings Heidi discusses with such academic fervour as it is about her own life and those of at least some of her friends.
In the pivotal central role, Elisabeth Moss is quite exceptional. In equal parts poised and pained, her Heidi is a vital and very real creation: the attractive, intelligent, driven, sexually assured and uncompromising modern woman. In a play where almost all of the characters adapt, change or realign over the course of time, Moss’ Heidi is the one who stays true to her own vision, her own dreams, regardless of the costs of that decision to her own self.
Moss charts all this with delicacy and delicious certainty. The opening scene, where she and a friend are at a Senior dance, is a terrific tap-dance of insecurity and non-conformity and sets the pattern for the character. Her scenes with Jason Biggs are all exemplary and shine a very close light on her character’s foibles and strengths. She has a monologue in Act Two – another lecture, but very different from her art history ones – which is perfectly judged and resonates pain.
But, actually, her best scene cones in the moment where the two most important men in her life silence her in a national television broadcast, aided and abetted by the female host. Moss’ silent, incredulous rage is mesmerising. She is in extraordinary form.
As the entitled jock with a brain but no taste for adventure, Jason Biggs proves to be a fine choice as Scoop, the journalist who is, probably, the love of Heidi’s life. Perfectly arrogant, intellectually rigorous, but flawed by lust and ambition, Scoop is the kind of man modern women inevitably have to deal with. Obsessed about himself and uncaring about the woman he marries, but curiously obsessed by what his children think of him. Biggs, in a mature and thoroughly complex performance, delivers the goods.
The other man in Heidi’s life is Peter, the doctor she falls in love with, quietly but firmly, but with whom she never consummates the union. Bryce Pinkham is too John Inman in the role to let it work as it might; yes, he is very funny, but the humour comes at a cost. There is no reason, at least in the first Act, probably ever, for Peter to be camp and queeny. Heidi is not stupid or ignorant and so should easily work out that Peter is gay, given how rainbow-flag-flying-in-the-breeze Pinkham’s portrayal is. But it is a stinging surprise to Heidi when Peter comes out to her, not one shared by the audience.
In the second Act, there is more difficulty. Pinkham’s final scene ought be more powerful, more devastating than it is. But his established campiness undermines the inherent power in his confrontation with Heidi when she suddenly announces she is planning on running away from her life. It’s a lost opportunity.
The other women who circle around Heidi’s life are all played well and with some bite by Tracee Chimo, Ali Ahn, Leighton Bryan and Elise Kibler. Ahn is excellent as the brash Susan who changes her occupation and direction as often as she changes her clothes; Chimo makes for a sensational angry lesbian and then a smarmy, hideous television host and Bryan is exceptional as Scoop’s brutalised wife. Kibler and Chimo are especially good at convincingly demonstrating the changes women inflict upon themselves for success.
The use of music and projections helps everything gel and move from year to year. Mackinnon’s direction of the women is especially impressive and the whole piece has an urgency, a focus that is intense and rewarding. The pace never lags. John Lee Beatty provides a set which changes with every scene, but which retains an austere clinical aspect, emphasising the forensics nature of the art historian and the dissection of Heidi’s life.
The two middle-aged women next to me opined that the play was dated and that “women don’t talk about those issues this way any more”. Fascinating. They absolutely should. Wasserstein’s play still has much work to do – it should be compulsory reading for Senior boys the world over.
A ripe and richly rewarding revival, with a central performance from Elisabeth Moss which is lustrous and achingly honest.