Celebrated Playwright Wendy Wasserstein Dies at 55
This past fall, Wasserstein participated in rehearsals for the Lincoln Center Theater production of her new play, Third, even though she was undergoing treatment for her illness at the time. That show opened on October 24 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and concluded its limited engagement there on December 18.
Wasserstein's professional career began with Any Woman Can't, produced by Playwrights Horizons in 1973. Uncommon Women and Others, staged by the Phoenix Theatre four years later, brought her widespread acclaim. In between those two productions, she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Yale School of Drama. Uncommon Women, an episodic, darkly humorous account of eight graduates of Wasserstein's alma mater, Mount Holyoke, featured eight uncommonly talented actresses: Glenn Close, Alma Cuervo, Jill Eikenberry, Cynthia Herman, Swoozie Kurtz, Anna Levine, Ann McDonough, and Ellen Parker. A PBS telecast of the play the following year, with Meryl Streep replacing Close, was a landmark in the careers of the playwright and the youthful cast.
In the 1988-89 Broadway season, Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles took all the major prizes: the Pulitzer and the Tony Award for Best Play, plus the Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics and Susan Smith Blackburn awards. During her 30-year career in the theater, Wasserstein received grants from a host of organizations, including the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She also enjoyed the support of eminent theater figures and their not-for-profit companies, most notably T. Edward Hambleton of the Phoenix, André Bishop at Playwrights Horizon and Lincoln Center, and Daniel Sullivan/Seattle Rep.
Wasserstein's major plays feature protagonists that baby boomers recognize and take to heart. From yuppie Janie Blumberg in the 1983 Off-Broadway hit Isn't It Romantic to Laurie Jameson, the middle-aged professor of this season's Third, her heroines are intelligent, believably insecure members of the post-Vietnam middle and upper middle class, coping with the fallout of so-called Second Wave feminism. Heidi Holland, the bright, vulnerable art historian of The Heidi Chronicles, laments that she feels "stranded" by the failure of the Women's Movement of the 1960s and '70s to deliver on its promise of sisterhood. "I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded," she says. "I thought...we were all in this together." Wasserstein reached the high water mark of her career with The Sisters Rosensweig, a 1993 Broadway success in which she abandoned her earlier episodic style in favor of serious comedy influenced by Chekhov, Ibsen, and the tradition of Jewish family drama integral to 20th century American theater.
In addition to her stage work, Wasserstein wrote teleplays and the ruefully sweet big-screen adaptation of Stephen McCauley's novel The Object of My Affections (1998), directed by her close friend Nicholas Hytner. She adapted her children's book Pamela's First Musical, written in collaboration with designer Andrew Jackness, into a stage musical with a score by Cy Coleman and David Zippel. Her essays in slick, New York based magazines, collected in the books Bachelor Girls and Shiksa Goddess, are about being an outsider -- single among couples, Jewish in gentile surroundings, a nonbeliever in the midst of religious observance, an artist among practitioners of quotidian if more lucrative professions.
Wasserstein belonged to a now legendary group of drama students who matriculated at Yale in 1973; others in the class included Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Kate McGregor Stewart, Albert Innaurato, William Hauptman, and Christopher Durang. While in New Haven, Wasserstein and Durang -- destined to have the most conspicuous playwriting careers among their graduate-school colleagues -- collaborated on a send-up of American beauty pageants. That joint effort, When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, was performed at the Yale Cabaret in 1975 and is frequently cited in accounts of what now seems a golden age of the Yale School of Drama. Robert Brustein, then dean of the school, has suggested that Durang "set the tone for this witty and brilliant, sometimes acerbic, sometimes disaffected generation." That assessment may apply more aptly to Wasserstein, whose irony marks her as a precursor of the McSweeneys' generation but whose plays, with their humane tone and psychological insight, don't contain the invective characteristic of Durang.
Wendy Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn on October 18, 1950 and grew up in Manhattan. Her father, a textile manufacturer, invented that "annual Christmas classic, velveteen bows with bendable wires." Her mother, Lola, whom Wasserstein described as the "Maimonides of feminine guile ideology," is a frequent presence in her daughter's essays. "On my opening nights," wrote Wasserstein, "my mother invariably told friends that she'd be much happier if it was my wedding." Wasserstein used her mother as the model for Tasha Blumberg, the meddling, Auntie Mame-like character played by Betty Comden in Isn't It Romantic.
Wasserstein grew up in a household of talented siblings. Her brother Bruce, now CEO of Lazard LLC and owner of New York magazine, is an iconoclastic investment banker nicknamed "Bid-'Em-Up Bruce" by Forbes for his activities in the go-go mergers-and-acquisitions market of the 1980s. An older sister, the late Sandra W. Meyer, was a trailblazer among women business executives and held high-profile positions at General Foods, American Express, and Citibank. (Meyer was the model for Sara Goode, the eldest Rosensweig, played on Broadway by Jane Alexander.)
Like Heidi Holland, Wasserstein became a single parent in what should have been her middle years. After a decade or so of fertility treatments and failed inseminations, she gave birth to a daughter approximately one month before her 49th birthday. Lucy Jane Wasserstein weighed less than two pounds when delivered by Caesarian section in September 1999. The baby spent 10 weeks in neonatal intensive care. Word of her arrival triggered a guessing game in theater circles and the press as to the identity of the sperm donor. Speculation focused on a trio of Wasserstein's longtime friends: producer André Bishop, costume designer William Ivey Long, and the late stage director Gerald Gutierrez.
Wasserstein may have taken that secret with her. As her legacy to the world, she leaves a handful of well-crafted plays that are performed regularly around the country, and Lucy Jane, a kindergartner who -- not surprisingly -- attends an elite, all-girls school in Manhattan.