Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.
Note: This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.
Lead Cast: Elisabeth Moss (Heidi Holland), Jason Biggs (Scoop Rosenbaum), Bryce Pinkham (Peter Patrone), Ali Ahn (Susan Johnston). With: Leighton Bryan, Tracee Chimo, and Elise Kibler
Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Why Heidi Matters
Freud famously asked: “What does a woman want?” The answer hasn’t changed since we first met Heidi Holland back in 1988. Women want to have it all: love, career, and children. Sadly, that quest hasn’t gotten much easier in the 27 years since the play debuted at Playwrights Horizons and then on Broadway. That’s why Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize/Tony winner resonates not just with those old enough to remember the original production, but with a new generation of theatre-goers as well.
Simply put, The Heidi Chronicles is an important play. It tackles complex, macro issues by following one woman’s life over a 20-year span, from her awkward teenage years in the radical 1960s through the rise of feminism and other significant socio/political changes of the 70s, to the older—but perhaps no wiser—80s. What makes The Heidi Chronicles so enjoyable, rather than didactic, is the quality of Wasserstein’s writing. Her heartfelt, light touch creates a play that is serious, yes, but also often funny and always engaging. (An example: when a talk show host asks Heidi if she’s a superwoman, Heidi replies, “Oh, gosh, no. You have to keep too many lists to be a superwoman.”).
Feminist art historian Heidi Holland is passionate about her work. The play begins in 1989 at Columbia University, where a self-assured Heidi presents a lecture about the plight of women artists throughout history. She laments one nearly forgotten 16th century painter: “Although Sofonisba was praised in the 17th century as being a portraitist equal to Titian, and at least 30 of her paintings are known to us, there is no trace of her, or any other woman artist prior to the 20th century, in your current art history textbook.” That sets the tone: women must work hard to be heard—and they must also work to amplify other women’s voices.
The next two scenes flash back to 1965 and 1968, when Heidi encounters the two men who will become the great loves of her life. She meets and immediately bonds with Peter Patrone at a high school dance. While her best friend Susan swoons over a boy because he “looks like Bobby Kennedy” and “can twist and smoke at the same time,” Heidi—even at a young age—knows that for her, that’s not enough. Three years later, she meets arrogant magazine editor Scoop Rosenbaum at a McCarthy for President event. Scoop is charming, handsome, and intelligent. So is Peter. Too bad for Heidi: she can’t build a life with either one. Peter is gay and Scoop makes it clear that he needs a wife who will always put his career first. Give him credit: he knows what he wants, and although Scoop loves Heidi in his way, he knows she is not what he needs in a wife.
By play’s end, Heidi doesn’t have it all, but she does have two out of three—a satisfying career and a child. Scoop, about to announce his run for Congress, asks her, “Are you happy?” Her reply: “I’ve never been what I’d call a happy girl. Too prissy. Too caustic.” But there is hope. Perhaps her daughter will find a man (maybe Scoop’s son?) in a world where, “She’ll never think she’s worthless unless he lets her have it all. And maybe, just maybe, things will be a little better. And yes, that does make me happy.”
Hopefully, the talented young cast in this excellent new production—led by 32-year-old Elisabeth Moss—will attract a new generation to Wasserstein’s ground-breaking play. Moss, a fine actress best known for her portrayal of Peggy Olson on the hit show Mad Men, is onstage nearly every moment. It’s a challenge to believably portray a character over a 24-year arc, yet Moss delivers the goods, finding the behavioral nuances of a tentative 16-year-old school girl, an accomplished 40-year-old woman, and everything in between.
Jason Biggs, of the popular American Pie movies (who made his Broadway debut at age 12), seems born to play the swaggering journalist/entrepreneur Scoop Rosenbaum, described in Wasserstein’s play notes as “intense but charismatic.” From his first line (to Heidi), “Are you guarding the chips?” to the final scene with his “Heidella,” Biggs is simply perfect. Broadway favorite Bryce Pinkham completes the unconventional love triangle as Heidi’s other life-long love, gay pediatrician Peter Patrone. Pinkham, who left his Tony-nominated role in The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder to join the Heidi cast, nails his character’s combination of insouciant wit, cynicism, and frustration.
Of particular note is the multi-talented young actress Tracee Chimo, who, always the theatrical chameleon, shines in four supporting roles: Susan’s friend Molly, Betsy, a pregnant woman, 80s talk show host April, and most memorably, Fran, a lesbian in a 1970’s woman’s consciousness-raising group. (Best line: “You either shave or legs or you don’t.”).
Before seeing the show (in an early preview) I worried that after all these years, Heidi might feel as dated as a pair of Weejuns and a plaid Villager skirt. Alas, the show remains all too relevant. Today’s women face the same problems as Heidi Holland; they still struggle with the challenge of “having it all.”
Wasserstein’s message is articulated by Fran, speaking to the members of the Huron Street Ann Arbor Consciousness-raising Rap Group: “Every woman in this room has been taught that the desires and dreams of her husband, her son, or her boss are much more important than her own. And the only way to turn that around is for us, right here, to try to make what we want, what we desire to be, as vital as it would undoubtedly be to any man. And then we can go out there and really make a difference!”
Wasserstein (the first woman playwright to win a Tony) did just that, in The Heidi Chronicles and her other work. And for that we are gratefully in her debt.
The playwright, whose other plays include The Sisters Rosensweig, Isn’t It Romantic, and An American Daughter, passed away in 2006 of lymphoma, at the age of 55. Like Heidi, she became a single mother late in life, giving birth to daughter Lucy Jane at the age of 48.
- Wasserstein’s brother Bruce (now deceased) has a son named Scoop.
- Sex in the City connection: Sarah Jessica Parker played three small roles in the original Off-Broadway production of The Heidi Chronicles. Cynthia Nixon played the same roles in the Broadway run, and Kim Cattrall played Susan in the made-for-TV film starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
- Tracee Chimo and Jason Biggs both have recurring roles on the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black.
Thank you, Tracee!