Theatre: Knocking their spots off

Pulitzer prizewinning 'feminist' playwright Wendy Wasserstein discusses prejudice, polka dots and her latest play with Georgina Brown
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The Independent Culture
A bubbly Wendy Wasserstein breezes into the Savoy foyer burbling about polka dots. She's wearing them, I'm wearing them and she confesses that her overwhelming preoccupation of this morning has been whether one can wear dots spring into summer into winter. "And I've cracked it," she giggles, falling into a squidgy sofa: "You're in summer dots. But this morning I put on the black stockings because of the rain, so I'm in winter dots. See? You can."

Wendy Wasserstein, a bluestocking in black stockings, has a deliciously trivial, frivolous, even dotty side, summer into winter. The less "flip" side, however, is sassy, penetrating and profound, and the strength and satisfaction of her plays is that you get the whole caboodle. Her work, very broadly, concerns female troubles - histories, histrionics, hysterectomies - and the best of it is at once weighty and frothy; it satirises while it sympathises, and juggles shopping with Schopenhauer. Her talent has made her a household name in America.

She's over here for the opening tomorrow of her play, The Heidi Chronicles, at the Greenwich Theatre, where another of her plays, The Sisters Rosensweig, was given a starry production (Maureen Lipman, Janet Suzman, Lynda Bellingham) a couple of years ago, before transferring for a happy run in the West End. The Heidi Chronicles is an earlier piece for which Wasserstein became the first woman to win a Tony award, the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize; and it won five more American theatre awards. The television movie starring Jamie-Lee Curtis is up for an Emmy. Nothing, however, guarantees success here. A couple of months ago, AR Gurney's Thurberesque cartoon, Sylvia, crossed the water on a tide of glowing reviews and sank. "Revivals are very hard," says a cautious Wasserstein, who has been attending rehearsals. "Your take on the play is different; the times are different; you don't want to bring a previous production to a new production. You're in a different country, so you don't know what works so well. You have to let a play find itself - I don't have a sense as to what will happen or not."

She speaks from bittersweet experience. British critics responded very differently from American critics to The Sisters Rosensweig, a witty comedy about three sisters and their quest for love and fulfilment. Indeed, a few critics - all men - seemed determinedly resistant to its charms. "Obstinately undramatic," said one. "Cursed with that special Broadway slickness which dangles before us issues and anxieties of our time but never once finds the courage to allow us to feel real pain for any of them," said another.

"They were pretty scathing," says Wasserstein. "And there is something very satisfying about a play having a life despite that. I knew it was a well-made play and it worked. I think plays which are quintessentially American, by Arthur Miller, David Mamet and Sam Shepard, do better over here. Whereas plays by Chris Durang, a wonderful satirist, AR Gurney, me, who write plays of social manners, more sort of English plays but fuzzier, are regarded with an attitude tending towards disdain. From my point of view I've enjoyed this process - I'm very lucky because I seem to have found a home at the Greenwich Theatre, which for a playwright is the best thing. And I know the play works. But you do care if people don't like it."

Arguably, this play will travel better because it is more accessible (ie less "New York", by which people usually mean Jewish). It begins at a high-school dance in 1965 and, with the help of Heidi Holland's record collection, which evokes the time and emotional tone of each episode, charts the evolution of a shy, intellectual would-be art-historian through the next 25 years until, stranded by the feminist movement, disappointed by men, single and 40, she has finally donated her albums to a hospital and adopted a baby. In doing so, Wasserstein presents us with a tragicomic dissection of the baby boomer generation and the various freedoms and political ideologies it embraced, abandoned and became disillusioned with.

Wasserstein wrote it 10 years ago when she was over here on a grant from the British-American Arts Association for "mid-career stimulation". (She giggles uproariously as she says it.) "I think it was a little premature, don't you? If I'm thinking important things, like 'Are dots winter into spring?', some mid-career stimulation might be necessary right now! I'm airing the unresolvable conflict between a woman's conventional romantic expectations and career goals; the play is as pertinent now as it ever was." Ten years on, Wasserstein believes we've made little progress: "There are better opportunities for women academics like Heidi because of political correctness. That's a change, but in terms of one's personal life and whether you think 'Am I happy?' and 'Have I lived my life to the best of my ability?' and 'Does it matter?' - those are very hard issues that don't change."

During a decade of watching Heidi in various productions, Wasserstein has vacillated between impatience with her creation's dilemma and real sympathy. At a preview last week, she confesses, she wept to see Susannah Harker's Heidi, alone on stage, cradling her baby. What she projected for Heidi is not what she chose for herself. At 45, she remains single with no baby. Not that she shuts out the possibility of romance. "I've only now come to the conclusion that the more independent you are as a woman, the more romance becomes separate from the domestic and dependency issues of life... You're not waiting for somebody to fill up your life for you."

Being that extremely rare flower, a successful female playwright, who is also a fast-talking, joky Jewish New Yorker, Wasserstein has many burdensome agendas thrust upon her which she resolutely disregards, holding fast to those issues and characters that interest her. When Heidi first opened, feminists attacked it for suggesting that fulfilment only came with motherhood. "Heidi was making a choice," she says. She also recalls an incident the other day when she was at a very fancy party in the Hamptons (Princess Diana's kind of bash), when a woman dripping in gold jewellery came up to her and said, "I'm very anxious to see your new play and what your thoughts on feminism are now." "And I wanted to say to her, 'And I'm very anxious to see your watch.' "

Similarly, critics invariably classify her as a female Neil Simon. "He's a really good craftsman. But..." - a pretty major but - "our plays have nothing to do with each other. Neil Simon is not going to write a chronicle of an art historian's life, nor would I go out and write The Odd Couple." (In fact, odd as it sounds, the major influence on Heidi was David Edgar's episodic play, MayDays.) Moreover, Wasserstein's ironic tone is very much her own: "I can't tell you what a comfort it is to live in a country where our feelings are openly repressed," says one character about Britain.

Wasserstein describes herself very simply as a New Yorker in showbusiness and while, once upon a time, she used to resent being labelled a women's writer -"I felt ghettoised"- she has recently begun to feel positively proud of it. At Yale, where she was a solitary woman among a dozen men who did a masters in playwrighting, the class read her play, Uncommon Women, in which five women graduates of Mount Holyoke College (her own alma mater) gather and reminisce; and the dramaturg raised his hand and said, "I can't get into this." "I thought: when you're a girl, you grow up reading Robin Hood and Lawrence of Arabia and you never think that. You go beyond that straight away. When I sat through the read-through of Heidi, I found myself thinking, 'Who else is putting these sort of people on stage?' and I felt proud."

She says she inherited her sense of the theatrical from her mother, a passionate dancer (still jiving in her eighties) - a passion indulged by her father (who made a fortune with his invention of flock wallpaper). As the youngest of four high achievers - one sister is a banker, the other is a restaurateur, her brother is an entire bank - she was the clever clown with a taste for original-cast musicals and a fine ear for overheard chatter. Her first play, Uncommon Women, with Glenn Close in the original production, got better notices than any subsequent piece. It was instantly picked up for television (a four-figure deal) with Meryl Streep, a friend of Wendy's from Yale days, in the lead, and Wasserstein was off. "My life has been more amazing than I thought it would be," she says. "I think I've been inordinately lucky."

Luck, of course, has played its part, but she works herself hard, writing essays, children's books, a libretto for a ballet, adapting novels into screenplays, while she waits for "a full idea" for another play. The next one concerns the recent spate of political embarrassments in which women in high office have been caught out by a past "mistake" (failing to pay the nanny's social security etc), while paying homage to lbsen and an Ibsenite set of values, in the way that The Sisters Rosensweig drew something from Chekhov. Theatre remains her overriding passion and she admits that she shares with a character in The Sisters the sentiment that "the only time I have a real sense of who I am is when I'm in a darkened theatre and we're making it all up." The same character also says, "People like you and I have to work even harder to create the best art, the best theatre, the best bloody books about gender and class... and the rest, the children, the country kitchen, the domestic bliss, we leave to others who will have different regrets."

Wasserstein admits that she means people like her: "I feel secure in the theatre. It's a world where you try to order the imagination and you're working with like-minded people. If it's not working, though, you are suddenly distanced from the make-believe of it all, and you think, 'What are we doing here watching someone saying things to someone standing four feet away from them, and there are only 100 people watching it?' That's really scary and sometimes I think I'll just go to some town and be a secretary and have a life."

Thus far, however, when the going gets tough, a new pair of shoes - of pretty fancy shoes - is enough to restore her spirits, and march her cheerfully back into the theatre.

n 'The Heidi Chronicles' opens at Greenwich Theatre, SE10, tomorrow. Booking: 0181-858 7755