Before there was Candace Bushnell or Lena Dunham, there was Wendy Wasserstein. The Brooklyn-born, Ivy League graduate carved a niche in contemporary theater with her uncompromising explorations of women, beginning with her Yale graduate thesis, Uncommon Women and Others. She revisited those themes in a more expansive capacity in The Heidi Chronicles, now receiving a respectable Broadway revival starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs (American Pie), and Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder).
The Heidi Chronicles won both the 1989 Tony Award for best play as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and it’s clear why. Heidi Holland’s chronological journey from a wallflower at a high school dance to single mom in the modern world is one layered with a multitude of themes. As an art history student with feminist leanings, Heidi’s life experiences are framed through the works of seminal (yet mostly unknown because of their gender) female painters. This heavily researched through line colors the play in fascinatingly subtle ways, much like the works themselves, and is exhibited as a series of slides on John Lee Beatty’s ever-transforming set.
Over the years Heidi navigates her relationships with varying degrees of success, including those with her longtime friend Peter (Bryce Pinkham) and on-again-off-again boyfriend Scoop (Jason Biggs). She is often caught at the crossroads with the dual desires of wanting an intimate relationship and struggling to find her place in a society where women’s roles are rapidly changing. This dramatic tension—sometimes as nuanced as a sigh or pause by Moss—is what breathes life into Wasserstein’s play.
Elisabeth Moss doesn’t tackle Heidi so much as warmly envelope the character with quirky humanity and humor. Complexly written, Moss is able to navigate Heidi’s journey with great dexterity, culminating in a speech delivered at an alumnae luncheon where the years of personal and societal expectation finally crumble. It is both humorous and devastating as Heidi discovers the simple fact that she’s just not happy. “It’s just that I feel stranded,” she says. “And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together.”
The men in Heidi’s life struggle with their own intimacy issues. For her best friend, Peter, it’s coming to terms with his homosexuality and the dark shadows of the impending AIDS crisis. Bryce Pinkham approaches the role with odd affectation, but within those vocal inflections and stilted body movements, he discovers an unconventional authenticity.
Jason Biggs is less successful as Heidi’s lingering romantic interest. Their chemistry, which sparks at a 1968 Eugene McCarthy dance, doesn’t seem to evolve over the years and one wonders what keeps these two drawn to each other. The play, which runs more than two-and-a-half hours and culminates with their denouement is a slight fizzle to an otherwise effervescent evening.
As for the ensemble of women (Ali Ahn, Leighton Bryan, Tracee Chimo and Elise Kibler) who comprise Heidi’s friends and colleagues through the years—they are a painter’s palette whose sum of the parts creates indelible images of a woman’s journey through the last part of the 20th century. Both historical and relevant, their struggles with self-worth, motherhood, success and happiness are chronicles worth revisiting.
The Heidi Chronicles
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street