INTERVIEW / Wendy and her sisters: Her mother would rather that she produced grandchildren than plays. Broadway audiences disagree. Rhoda Koenig met the 'female Neil Simon'

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The Independent Culture
I think if I can make it to 40,' a character says at the close of Wendy Wasserstein's first play, 'I can be pretty amazing.' She extends a hand to her women friends. 'You too,' she says. 'When we're . . . 45, we can be pretty fucking amazing.'

What's amazing is that Wasserstein, the American author of four well-received comedies about female ambition and disappointment, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize, is only now, at 43, receiving her British premiere. Greenwich Theatre's production of The Sisters Rosensweig, which has just ended a 16-month Broadway run, will introduce British audiences to a writer who has been called a mix of Eugene O'Neill and Neil Simon, of Chekhov and Mary Tyler Moore.

The comparison with Simon - or Woody Allen - is understandable, but crude. While Wasserstein also writes about educated, ironic, fast-talking New York Jews, her characters are mostly women: instead of demanding attention and making complaints, they wryly comment on their failures and try to cheer one another up; they shrink from their parents' expectations only to struggle with more frightening ones of their own.

In Uncommon Women and Others (1977), the girls at Mount Holyoke College (which Wasserstein attended, and which indeed had mandatory Gracious Living evenings) sit around eating peanut-butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches, wondering which of the 'others' they'd like to marry. One overweight co- ed says her mother has offered to have her lips wired shut as a graduation gift.

The heroine of the Pulitzer-winning The Heidi Chronicles (1988) is not Jewish, but, like many Wasserstein characters, has her closest relationships with a homosexual and a cold-hearted playboy. Heidi, a feminist art historian who ends up unmarried and adopting a baby, refuses to accept the boyfriend's verdict on her and her friends: 'If you aim for six and get six, everything will work out nicely. But if you aim for 10 in all things and get six, you're going to be very disappointed. And unfortunately, that's why you 'quality time' girls are going to be one generation of disappointed women.'

'There's a lot of sadness in my plays,' says Wasserstein, who grew up in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the daughter of a garment-centre businessman ('Many people think my father invented velveteen. That is not true. He invented a type of flocking') and a dancer who insists she is not like the one in the play ('I never wore the tie-dye leotards. My leotards are black').

Wasserstein, though, has drawn heavily on her own life for her heroines, who all have two-syllable names ending in a long 'e', and whose affectionate relationships with homosexuals mirror her own. The worldly success that makes them nervous is amply represented by the Wasserstein siblings: one sister is the head of corporate affairs of one of the biggest American banks, the other runs a hotel, and her brother is a merger expert whose office once called to say he couldn't come to her play that night: 'He's buying Nabisco.' All have married and had children, an achievement that has so far eluded Wasserstein, whose mother says grandchildren mean more to her than a million dollars 'or any play'.

Wasserstein's parents, who loved to play original-cast recordings of Broadway shows, and often took her to the theatre, gave their bookish daughter a love of the stage. 'You get to leave your room, and there's somebody to play with. It makes writing a far less lonely profession. I wrote a book of essays, but I couldn't go visit my book in the bookstore.' Her plays are full of popular songs, which the characters use to evoke past happiness and express present yearnings, but she has never wanted to write lyrics. 'I like a broader canvas, I like' - she stretches her arms as far apart as they will go - 'space]' She has, though, written the book of a musical, Miami, with Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman, who wrote the song 'Copacabana'. 'It's in my closet. A Jewish producer took me out to talk about it. He said, 'Wendy, can't you make those people Irish? It's not good for the Jews.' '

Wasserstein has been criticised for her use of stock characters (the overbearing mother, the frumpy intellectual daughter) and her portrayal of Jews as self-absorbed vulgarians. In fact, her writing has become more and more an exercise in nostalgia, as New York's Jewish community has become more diffuse and assimilated. 'There are no more weddings with chopped-liver sculptures. You go now, and they've got goat cheese and sun- dried tomatoes.'

More often, though, middle-aged Jewish women descend on her in the street to tell her how much they love her and her plays. It's a success that leaves Wasserstein open to the charge of excessive ingratiation. For all their angst, her plays are nice plays, in which a working mother's neglect can be wittily absolved with 'Harriet, you can't blame everything on me. I wasn't home enough for you to blame everything on me' and a daughter can say 'Fuck off, mother' in a way that the Jewish ladies weighing down the dress circle can find cute. Wasserstein has also been attacked by feminists for 'not showing my anger. They say, 'What are you hiding?' ' Earnest types aren't pleased by the comically ironic scenes in her plays that show genteel young women learning to swear, or a college girl racing in to announce, 'I've tasted my menstrual blood]' What may annoy them is Wasserstein's constant theme: that female independence has turned out to be another fashion, that the most independent woman is at the mercy of time and circumstance.

Sisters represents Wasserstein's attempt to show the effects of endless questing on three women who meet in London to celebrate the expatriate sister's 54th birthday. Michael Blakemore, who is directing Janet Suzman and Maureen Lipman as two of the sisters, says that, as an Australian, he found the play very resonant. 'It's presumed to be a warm Neil Simon comedy, and it's nothing of the sort - it's about the great diasporas of the world. People are more rootless and so lead more interesting lives. But you have the suspicion that way back in your childhood lies a realer you than the one you've turned into.'

Even so, the play is full of wisecracking, exuberant characters: Merv, 'the world leader in synthetic animal protective covering', who enters singing, 'I love my shirt]', and Dr Gorgeous Teitelbaum, who explains how she got her name ('Well, it's obvious, isn't it]') and her job as a radio agony aunt ('Talking has always come easily to me'). It also has, uniquely for Wasserstein, an ending in which a woman is not left alone: 'I wanted to show the possibility of romance.' But what about the other two sisters? Where is their happy ending? 'Well, I can't be that happy,' she says, 'I might have a nervous breakdown.'

'The Sisters Rosensweig' opens on 9 Aug at Greenwich Theatre (081-858 7755)

(Photograph omitted)

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