Thursday, March 26, 2015

179 (2014-2015): Review of THE HEIDI CHRONICLES (March 25, 2015)

“Heidi High, Heidi Low”

A quarter of a century ago, in November 1988, the late Wendy Wasserstein’s topical comedy about the early decades of women’s lib, THE HEIDI CHRONICLES, opened Off Broadway, becoming so successful it moved in March 1989 to Broadway. It won the Tony (a first for a female dramatist) and the Pulitzer, among other awards, and was named one of the 1988-1989 season’s Ten Best Plays. Now, with Elisabeth Moss of TV’s “Mad Men” as Heidi, a role originally played by Joan Allen, the play is getting its first New York revival, and it appears the bloom is off the rose.
From left: Tracee Chimo, Leighton Bryant, Elise Kibler, Photo: Joan Marcus.
While Ms. Wasserstein’s concerns with feminist issues remain as pertinent as ever (think Sheryl Sandberg’s mega seller LEAN IN), the play, at least in Pam McKinnon’s staging, has a dated quality and—despite some strong laughs—isn’t as funny as it once was. Partly, this is because topical dramas often speak so much to their own times that seeing them even twenty-five years or so later makes them seem, if not exactly quaint, then interesting more for their time capsule qualities than for their immediacy. After all, aren’t these issues familiar to everyone by now? Partly it stems from Ms. McKinnon’s unsubtle direction (so sharply different from her WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? of two seasons ago), which fails to prevent the otherwise talented actors from seeming more like stereotypical attitudes than real people.
From left: Ali Ahn, Leighton Bryant, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Chronicled here is the development of America’s women’s movement from the 1960s through the 1980s as seen through the personal and professional difficulties of Heidi Holland, an art historian and college professor specializing in forgotten women artists in a field traditionally dominated by men. More or less passively, she watches events transpire, seeking to find her way through the changing landscape as her life intersects, to her confusion, with the goals of female empowerment.

The play’s two acts and thirteen scenes shift swiftly on the cleverly flexible turntable set designed by John Lee Beatty, abetted by excellent projection design from Peter Nigrini. After the prologues that begin each act showing Heidi giving a slide lecture, we follow her life from a high school dance in 1965 to 1989, when, unwed, she lives alone with her newly adopted baby. The action progresses, with each scene set several years after the preceding one, and with golden oldies setting the tone (“It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Respect,” “Imagine,” “You Send Me,” etc.). Jill BC Du Boff is responsible for the fine sound design (loved those pre-Power Point slide projector clicks).
From left: Tracee Chimo, Jason Biggs, Elisabeth Moss, Bryce Pinkham. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Heidi’s principal male friends—both of them inveterate talkers—are Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham), whom she meets at that high school dance, and Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs), who, during her college years, comes on to her at a Eugene McCarthy rally in New Hampshire. Peter, who becomes an important pediatrician, is gay and thus—despite his and Heidi’s deep mutual affection—romantically unavailable. The super-smart but smugly superior Scoop, a lawyer, progresses from political radicalism to commercial success as the publisher of a popular lifestyle magazine. Peter’s homosexuality is an important side issue, especially given the play’s appearance during the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Scoop, despite his seeming compatibility with Heidi, who loves him, marries the less challenging Memphis belle, Lisa Friedlander (Leighton Bryan), since Heidi refuses to compromise her ambitions for a husband’s needs. Heidi, unable to have it all, achieves professional but not personal fulfillment.
Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The episodic play’s scenes are generally pumped up by Ms. McKinnon for laughs, making them more like satirical sketches than believable events. These include one in which Heidi takes part in a consciousness raising group, one of whose caricature-like members, Fran (Tracee Chimo), is an outspoken lesbian (“Either you shave your legs or you don’t,” she insists), while, in another, Heidi participates in a protest outside a Chicago museum that has neglected women artists. There’s also an over-the-top TV interview showing Heidi being constantly interrupted by Scoop and Peter, as well as a restaurant scene during which we watch her best friend, Susan (Ali Ahn), earlier seen as a women’s rights activist, behaving boorishly as the shallow, celebrity-obsessed TV producer she’s become. Of course, watching the changing clothing (costumes are by Jessica Pabst) and (women’s) hair styles in these scenes can be amusing, but they, too, tend to be amplified for comic effect.
Tracee Chimo, Ali Ahn. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Perhaps the most effective scene comes at the end, when Scoop visits Heidi at her almost empty new apartment (the furniture hasn’t been delivered yet), and they work out some of their longstanding issues. Heidi expresses hope for the future, when her daughter and Scoop's son might actually meet, and her daughter will “never think she’s worthless unless he lets her have it all.” But such touching moments are too few and far between.
From left: Ali Ahn, Elisabeth Moss, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ms. Moss has a terrific scene when, standing at a podium and addressing a school reunion, Heidi breaks down as she improvises a rambling,  but thematically significant, speech about how confused her life has made her feel; she even admits: “It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together.” Otherwise, however, the actress, while always grounded and less exaggerated than those around her, offers little in the way of characterization you haven’t already seen her do as the vulnerable but determined Peggy on “Mad Men.” Unlike what we see of her friend Susan, Ms. Moss’s Heidi seems hardly to change through the years.

Bryce Pinkham, so brilliant in A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, brings too much musical comedy energy and mugging to the role of the gay pediatrician, while Jason Biggs makes an acceptable if not particularly charismatic Scoop. Apart from Ms. Ahn, the remaining cast members—Ms. Chimo, Ms. Bryant, Elise Kibler, and Andy Truschinski—play multiple roles, several of them well done, but others overacted.

Heidi high, Heidi low.

The Music Box
239 W. 45th Street, NYC
Open run

1 comment:

  1. The following was sent to me by e-mail when the writer, an emerita professor at UCLA, had technical difficulty posting it.

    "Even when I saw the original, I felt the work was not only overrated, but a subtle, nasty dig at women and actually anti-feminist-- the moral of the story seemed to be that the only fulfillment for a woman was in motherhood, and if you can't do it via someone's sperm, then you should adopt. Because you HAVE to have it all, which means having a career and a kid and a fabulous apartment. Even if you have a man, without a kid you are incomplete, so the adoption then becomes merely obtaining the latest trendy accessory. Commodities rule in Heidi's world. All I felt at the end was anger on behalf of what this poor kid's life was going to be." Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei