- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

Forget Eloise at the Plaza. The Manhattan girl many of my generation most wanted to be was playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

We wanted costume and set designer William Ivey Long to decorate our room with splashy yet soothing florals while we were in the hospital. We wanted a former June Taylor dancer for a mother. We wanted to gossip and sip absurdly expensive cocktails with theater luminaries such as Andre Bishop; playwrights William Finn and Christopher Durang; James Lapine; and actress Kathryn Grody. We wanted to defy convention — and flaunt advances with in vitro fertilization — by having a baby at 48 and naming her after Lucille Ball.

Wendy Wasserstein embodied what was glamorous and exciting about big-city living. She was funny and pithy — and we knew she had a pair of black “fat pants” stashed in her closet, just like we did. When my friends and I were struggling to make it in the Big Apple in the 1980s, Wendy was our heroine, and we eagerly awaited her plays and inhaled her monthly essays in the now-defunct New York Woman magazine as if they were Haagen-Dazs. If a curly-haired, broad-cheeked, nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn could make it, so could we.

Most of all, we wanted to write like her — funny, compassionate and intelligent plays and essays that deftly gauged the emotional temperature of contemporary American women. Wendy Wasserstein was the articulate voice of the baby-boomer generation for women who were smart and ambitious yet struck with self-doubt and swamped by the endless choices at their manicured fingertips.

Miss Wasserstein died yesterday of complications from lymphoma at the age of 55. She leaves behind her 7-year-old daughter, Lucy Jane; a slew of awards, including the Pulitzer and numerous Tonys; and a body of work that eloquently charts the hopes and compromises of women raised on the fantasies of Hollywood movies but striving for a passionate, independent life in which success is not measured by nabbing a man.

“No matter how lonely you get or how many birth announcements you receive, the trick is not to get frightened,” she wrote in her 1983 play “Isn’t It Romantic?” “There is nothing wrong with being alone.”

She also leaves behind the essential question: What will happen to the girls? It was “the girls” — or rather the lack of them — that got Miss Wasserstein interested in the theater in the first place.

Raised in New York, Miss Wasserstein remembered being taken to Broadway musicals and plays by her showbiz-dazzled mother and thinking that there were no “girls” like her onstage. She got her chance to change that at the Yale Drama School. (Her parents let her attend, she joked to writer A.M. Homes in an interview for Bomb magazine, on the off chance she might meet and marry a lawyer.)

She wrote “Uncommon Women and Others” as her senior thesis. It got noticed and resulted in a 1977 production that included a dream cast of Swoosie Kurtz, Glenn Close and Jill Eikenberry portraying a group of college women cast adrift after graduation. A year later, a public television version was filmed with Meryl Streep in the Close role.

More off-Broadway success followed in 1983 with “Isn’t It Romantic,” which depicts two young women grappling with the “you can have it all” superwoman expectations of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, it was “The Heidi Chronicles” in 1989 that brought Miss Wasserstein to the world stage — and to Broadway. It won the Tony for best play as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The play starred Joan Allen as anxious art historian Heidi Holland, who starts out fired up by the political upheaval and feminist movement of the 1960s and winds up two decades later increasingly saddened as her ideals, sisterly solidarity and prospects for romantic fulfillment dwindle away during the cutthroat Reagan era.

“I don’t blame any of us,” the character of Heidi says in the second act. “We are all concerned, intelligent, good women. It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together.”

At the end of the play, Heidi is embarking on single parenthood, a decision Miss Wasserstein made when she became pregnant with Lucy Jane in 1998. Throughout the years, there has been rabid speculation as to the baby’s father, which the playwright never revealed publicly.

Miss Wasserstein’s second Broadway hit was the semiautobiographical “The Sisters Rosensweig,” a 1993 comedy about a trio of driven sisters who embrace their Jewish identity in markedly different ways. In real-life, Miss Wasserstein’s sister, the inspiration for the character of Sara Goode in “The Sisters Rosensweig,” died at the age of 60 of breast cancer.

Though she retained a dedicated fan base, Miss Wasserstein was never a critics’ darling. Her last play on Broadway, 1997’s “An American Daughter,” was blasted by critics for its strident political treatment of the main character, a seemingly perfect female candidate for U.S. Surgeon General.

The play ran at Lincoln Center just three months but was beautifully and articulately revived at Arena Stage in 2003 under the direction of Artistic Director Molly Smith. Miss Wasserstein extensively revised “An American Daughter” for the D.C. run.

Miss Wasserstein also looked to Washington for a world-premiere production of her plays “Welcome to My Rash” and “Third” at Theatre J in 2004. Starring Kathryn Grody, the one-acts explored middle-age medical traumas and entrenched, pre-conceived notions. Only the second play, “Third,” had a life beyond Theatre J, enjoying a successful run in fall of 2005 at Lincoln Center, with Dianne Wiest playing a liberal, feminist college professor forced to face up to her prejudices when one of her most brilliant students turns out to be a white male neo-conservative.

That’s what was so ingratiating about Miss Wasserstein’s “girls” — their ability to change their minds, their willingness to embrace new viewpoints, a different way of being. Miss Wasserstein’s characters were conflicted, difficult and very rarely cuddly, but they were out there in the world, trying to make sense of it all, trying to be good women. It is their bravery you fall in love with, not their comeliness or ability to attract a mate.

With Wendy Wasserstein gone, who will make sure that when we look up onstage, we will see the faces of women we recognize, hearts and minds we can trace as surely as our own?

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