- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

“An American Daughter” was wasted on Broadway. Wendy Wasserstein’s 1997 play about political ambitions and the myth that women can “have it all” belongs inside the Beltway.

This show, which Molly Smith directs as if staging an elegant three-ring circus, snaps like Mary Matalin and James Carville. It combines the Ivy League sniping style of “The McLaughlin Group” with a sincere inquiry into the reluctance of baby boomer women to cede their hard-won power to the younger generation.

The “American Daughter” in question is Lyssa Dent Hughes (Johanna Day), a Washington triple threat: a senator’s progeny (Indiana Republican Sen. Alan Hughes, acted with affable gusto by the great Robert Prosky), a Georgetown hostess and an esteemed physician and public health official.

Nominated by the president for surgeon general, the scarily poised Lyssa is surprised at how much she wants it, even though it would be just another cherry heaped on top of a rich French pastry of a life. Lyssa is happily married, still, to an esteemed university professor, Walter (J. Fred Shiffman, playing the role of a fading liberal with bitterness and need). She has twin boys. She resides in a tastefully understated house in Georgetown filled with the history of her ancestor, Ulysses S. Grant.

Connected, wealthy, and thin, what more can a woman want? Simply put, Lyssa wants it all. A first-generation feminist who considers Eleanor Roosevelt a role model, she does not want to be told that life involves compromises and choices that men in her position may not have to make.

Those choices are made abundantly clear when it is discovered that Lyssa blew off jury duty a while back. (Dubbed “jurygate,” Lyssa’s ordeal is loosely based on “Nannygate,” the early Clinton administration scandal involving attorney general nominee Zoe Baird and the hiring of undocumented immigrants.) This mistake is compounded when casual remarks about icebox cakes and Indiana housewives turn her into what she calls “the Soccer Mom Anti-Christ.”

Lyssa could have been a stock feminist villain ripe for a fall, but as played by Miss Day with peppery intelligence and a gracious warmth, Lyssa is merely a woman who swallowed whole the feminist version of the American work ethic — that glass ceilings are made to be shattered by hard-working women with good intentions. The current reality, of course, is that publicity and giving good “spin” are what you need to get ahead, and Lyssa’s naivete costs her dearly.

Her best friend, oncologist Judith Kaufman (Gail Grate, in a performance alternating irrepressible malice and heartbreaking vulnerability), knows better. A tart-tongued physician so obsessed with conceiving a child in her late 40s it sparks a suicidal dunk in the Potomac, Judith assumes the worst of people and situations and is rarely disappointed.

Lyssa’s guilessness leaves her vulnerable to a typical array of sharks: Morrow McCarthy (Damon Gupton), a homosexual conservative pundit so enraptured by his own voice that he betrays the only true friends he has; opportunistic TV reporter Timber Tucker (Alex Webb), who just wants to tell Lyssa’s side of the story — yeah, right; and most vividly, Quincy Quince (Holly Twyford), as a twittering, neo-feminist publicity hog who brings out the witch in both Lyssa and Judith.

While Miss Wasserstein definitely has an agenda, she is careful not to gratify her liberal ideology at the expense of conservative characters like Morrow McCarthy or the senator’s new wife, the old-school Georgetown socialite Charlotte “Chubby” Hughes (Laurie Kennedy), whose bubbly, bright-side personality could be an easy target for cheap shots. Instead, Chubby comes off as a survivor, for whom optimism is a choice, not an intellectual failing.

Miss Wasserstein’s trademark wiseacre wit is also in abundance, but it is uncharacteristically disciplined here, subordinated to character.

The lesson in “An American Daughter” is hardly inspiring, but it might be realistic. “Time will teach you that a woman’s life is all about boundaries,” one of the characters says. And although this message may seem limiting, Miss Wasserstein seems to be saying that within choice there is great power.

***1/2

WHAT: “An American Daughter” by Wendy Wasserstein

WHERE: Arena Stage, Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; selected Tuesday and Wednesday matinees at noon. Through June 15.

TICKETS: $39-$57

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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