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Getting Personal (and Political) with Wendy

An Evening with Wendy Wasserstein at the Agassiz Theater, Oct. 23

By Thomas Madsen

Wendy Wasserstein won't be put on a pedestal. She prefers a simple 'Wendy,' she doesn't like too much meaning ascribed to her plays, and she definitely won't pontificate about technique. "I like to lock myself away in an Inn or spend the day on the telephone," she quips to the delight of a loving audience. "And I write everything out by hand first."

Pomp and ceremony embarrass her, even after six years in the lime-light following her 1989 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for the Heidi Chronicles, a New York Drama Critics Circle Prize, and numerous other accolades. For "An Evening with Wendy," the Gingham armchairs and end-table supplied by Harvard's Office for the Arts were far more fitting than the usual lectern setting of her speaking tour.

Ms. Wasserstein is loathe to be anything but familiar. Much has been made of her vulnerability and the charm that comes straight out of her work. Part of it is her affection for honesty bordering on self-deprecation, part of it is a healthy modesty about the scope of her work. Mostly Wasserstein offers a lot of witty warmth. Questions she finds irrelevant to her unassuming style, like those asking her to speak as an artiste, she merely deflects with a joke.

Even when she gives congressional budgeting a brief tongue-lashing for the NEA's funding predicament, Wendy demurs rather than presenting herself as an authority. She lowers her voice as if to acknowledge a tacit understanding of what she is about to say. "You know what theater politics are like," she pines, leaning toward the front row, "so rather than blame the Newts of this world I look internally and ask what the liberals did wrong." She knows she's preaching to the converted and can get away with criticizing her own kind.

In her current speaking tour, "A Life in the Theatre," she focusses a great deal on her family as artistic inspiration. Family was the first question raised by Rachel B. Tiven '97, who interviewed the playwright on stage for the first segment of the program. Wasserstein's plays revolve around her family. "Miami" describes a Jewish family vacationing in Miami Beach, and "The Sisters Rosensweig" is based loosely on Wendy and her siblings.

Most of her plays involve Jewish women, in fact, excepting only her latest work-in-progress. Set in a Georgetown townhouse, it satirizes what happens to a middle-aged woman when she gets nominated to a cabinet position.

The explanation for all the Jewish women is simple. Wasserstein is Jewish. She intends no grand message by her portraits, she is simply writing about what she knows.

"Usually plays develop from things that have been bothering me for a while." "Isn't It Romantic" derived its themes from a friend's marriage, nothing more. When Tiven asked what message Ms. Wasserstein had for Jewish women, Wendy stiffened. There was no answer. "Aerobics," she suggested to a roar of approval from the audience. "And its never too early to start"

Offers have been coming in for TV and Cable movies to supplement her fairly steady diet of essays and short plays for magazines such as The New Yorker. Wasserstein also keeps a busy international schedule comprising speaking engagements in London, travel writing opportunities, and even a Japanese musical adaptation of "The Sisters Rosensweig." Most recently Ted Turner produced a film adaptation of "The Heidi Chronicles" for TNT starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Hulce, for which Wasserman wrote the screenplay.

"There's been a lot of criticism of the final scene [in Chronicles]," says Wasserstein of the heroine Heidi, art historian and feminist, who chooses to have a child rather than further pursue her career. The conclusion disappointed some '60's femanists whom Heidi represented and sparked criticism that Wasserstein believed "women couldn't have it all." Since the play is far more personal than political, the controversy naturally miffed Wasserstein somewhat. "How they could have that kind of interpretation, I don't know," she smiles, "but the ending [of the TNT production] was not a response to that criticism."

On this point the author is unfair. The question is how anyone could not read the play along political lines. People view Heidi as an emblem for the women's movement itself, so that her decision is seen as a defeat for feminism. Wasserstein, who was herself an activist not unlike Heidi, wrote the play to confront her resignation from superwoman-hood, and the sadness she felt at remaining single with no children. Heidi's path mirrored the one she herself would have chosen, but for ardent feminists, this was a cop out.

Its difficult to imagine anyone would be pissed about a play's out come after meeting Wasserstein in person and being treated to her sanguine laughter, her quick wit and affable desire to entertain and charm at the same time. Her artistry and personality seem directed toward the same personal, not political, end.

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