“The Audience” for
“The Heidi Chronicles”
Crosses All Generations
by TONY VELLELA
“I’m sorry I don’t want you to find out that I’m worthless. And superior.” Dr. Heidi Holland, art historian, author, professor, friend, makes this confession as guest speaker to a banquet room of other Miss Crain’s alumnae, the exclusive Chicago girls’ school. The topic? Women, Where Are We Going? It’s 1986. And Heidi does not know where she is going.
When Wendy Wasserstein’s brilliant play “The Heidi Chronicles” premiered in 1988 at Playwrights Horizons, later moving, for a three-year run, to Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre, it’s fair to say that the playwright also did not know where she was going. What she did know was that her tightly-constructed serious drama, laced with wit sharp as a carving knife, had up-ended both how a certain category of women looked at their lives, and how women characters would forevermore be depicted. Spanning nearly a quarter century [1965 - 1989], the story line explores personal and professional relationships, at a time when the notion of women ‘Having it all’ first gained real traction.
Going from inside out, this production has been blessed with a few real assets, chief among them casting Elisabeth Moss as Heidi. Her career has included other characters with challenging life situations, including Peggy Olsen, whose evolving assertiveness in AMC’s “Mad Men” has much in common with Heidi, and Zoe Bartlett, daughter of President Jeb Bartlett, in NBS’s “West Wing.” Moss possesses an elusive quality that may just come naturally to some – her public ‘image’ has few definitive adjectives attached to it. People like that often find that others project onto them the characteristics they believe the person has or should have – a kind of blank slate – not judgmental, not aggressive, not flirtatious, and not ego-centric. Wasserstein told me on more than one occasion how lucky she felt that it was Joan Allen who originally brought her Heidi to life, because she’s an actress in possession of these highly-cherished characteristics. [It's the principal reason I found Jamie Lee Curtis's Heidi in the T-V movie version less convincing. She, whether consciously or not, projects certain attitudes, regardless of the role, the circumstances or the dialogue.]
With Moss as Heidi, this production has made room for the work of Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham, who round out the three main characters. While attending a dance with her best friend Susan [a smart, focused Ali Ahn] while still a high schooler at Miss Crain’s, Heidi meets cute – Pinkham’s clever, witty Peter Patrone. The pair complement each other’s natural inclination to stay removed from the action, using for-their-age rather well-developed repartee [him to her: You look so bored you must be very bright.] Somewhat prophetically, he affirms: “I want to know you all my life. If we can’t marry, let’s be great friends.”
The third point on this triangle is Scoop Rosenbaum [Biggs]. When he meets Heidi at a Manchester, New Hampshire mid-winter dance for Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential ambitions, she’s now a Seven Sisters college student, still more comfortable on the outskirts of the dance. Scoop trumpets his importance, boasting that as a reporter for The Liberated Earth News, he’s been chosen to pick up Paul Newman from the airport. Like Peter, Scoop has an immediate attraction to Heidi’s quick wit, but Scoop manages to use his as a kind-of verbal truncheon, deployed in service of picking up women, or at least, her. Even at this first meeting, Heidi and Scoop lay out their fundamental life positions. She states “All people deserve to fulfill their potential,” and reacting to his polished confidence, wonders “what is it that mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters.”
During the ensuing two-and-a-half decades, Heidi’s world takes her to representative situations, places, events and societal moments that define the state of American life. She joins women friends protesting the exclusion of women artists at the Chicago Institute of Art – on the day Richard Nixon resigns. She attends a baby shower for Scoop’s accommodating wife, in the wake of the assassination of John Lennon. And a secondary character, Lisa’s younger sister Denise [an appealing Elise Kibler] holds an important key to Wasserstein’s overview of the play’s topic of feminism. As the playwright anticipated, younger women would come to take for granted the advances made by Heidi’s generation, even finding fault with how they conducted their lives. Women today in their teens and twenties find it implausible that there was a time in this country in the not-so-distant past when the questions Heidi’s cohorts struggle with were ever a real issue. The quarter century the play spans was riddled with assaults on women’s rights from many quarters. The thought that a single woman could/should be a mother – natural or adoptive – rocked institutions, split apart friendships and working relationships, caused many women to re-examine very carefully all the parts of their identity and self-image. It seemed like, every week, there was another ‘the first woman . . .’ story in the news, and that stage of American life continues. One of the most poignant consequences of Heidi’s journey emerges when her best friend Peter comes out to her during the women artists protest, and they manage to heal the breach that so many others never did – the strain of who’s liberation was more critical, more painful, more significant – equality for women, or for the gay community. And again, Wasserstein’s writing personalizes the issue so poignantly, as we see two individuals, rather than two stereotypical characters, try to understand each other.
Wasserstein’s very canny decision to make her central character someone who is not the central character in her life story presented an unusual challenge – how to make a self-defined outsider the person whose life we want to follow. There’s been a fair amount of carping in reaction to the staging of this revival, about how relevant Heidi’s story still might be, and how the events and people mentioned still might be. I would ask those making these kinds of observations whether they were unable to feel moved by the revelations in the dark corners of the Keller family in “All My Sons” without specific knowledge of World War II homefront activities, or whether lack of familiarity with the politically-motivated blacklisting that went on during Korean War years reduced their feelings for Katie and Hubbel in “The Way We Were.” I confess to one area of nit-picking that hit me as soon as I saw the first full-page New York Times ad, announcing the production. There’s outsider, reserved Heidi, holding forth in a short-sleeved, fire engine red, low-cut dress, with a come-hither smirk on her face to match.
Costume designer Jessica Pabst made a serious misstep here – was it trying to make her look more contemporary? More social [both male characters have always been featured behind her in the red-dress shot]. Others who also saw the original production have also told me how jarring that photo was to them when it first ran, and made them think twice about revisiting the play.
Wendy spent a good deal of her time trying to make the point that she wrote about specific people in specific situations, and not stand-ins for societal stereotypes. That meticulous crafting of her work paid off – members of any generation can find a great deal to enjoy in this classic Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winner. Despite her noteworthy good humor, it remained a sore point for her to continue having to say that Heidi’s life choices were those of Heidi, not of an entire generation. And as long as anyone believes that the other people whom she’s close to may be at odds with her choices, and as long as society forces labels onto its members that marginalize rather than include them, this play will resonate. For now, take this opportunity to experience the signal achievement of one of our great playwrights – gender aside.
What do Queen Elizabeth II, Dolly Gallagher Levi and the King of Siam have in common? They’ve all been brought to stage by one actor [not the same one for all three], and all garnered considerable acclaim. In reverse order, those thesps are/were Yul Brynner, Carol Channing and Helen Mirren. [Remember James Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey. . .?"] And Ms. Mirren’s regal recreations of meetings with Britain’s prime ministers can be seen right now at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, in Peter Morgan’s “The Audience,” where she is revisiting the role that won her the 2006 Best Actress Oscar for portraying Her Majesty in “The Queen.” This production, which earned her an Olivier Best Actress Award, has been transported from its London origins, two years ago. [I refuse to use that wearying phrase 'from across the pond.' Retire it, please.]
And just as a lack of specific knowledge of who all the bold-face-named people are does not detract in large measure from enjoying “The Heidi Chronicles,” here, too, one can enjoy so much of the goings-on without being steeped in all the historical names/dates/places ricocheting round the stage.
And what a stage! The Windsors inhabit two splendid domiciles – their day-to-day digs, London’s Buckingham Palace, and their working country estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, that serves as the nestling-place for Balmoral Castle. Both locales are presented with just enough detail to evoke their splendor, their provenance, and ironically, despite ever-soaring ceilings and vast expanses of rugs and drapes, their ability to make one feel quietly confined. Understandably, the Queen appears more relaxed at Balmoral, possibly because it is privately-owned by the family, and not by the Crown. She’s perfectly comfortable when one minister’s audience at Balmoral has a backdrop of “a spot of summer rain.” [The estate was a gift to Queen Victoria in 1852 by her loving consort, Prince Albert.] And once again, designer Bob Crowley [no relation, I believe to the residents of Downton Abbey], has delivered a masterful depiction of place, time and atmosphere.
Portraying a living monarch presents specific challenges for any actor. In this case, Mirren is tackling the unique challenge of giving us moments in someone’s public and private life during sixty-plus years, and out of chronological sequence. Wizard Crowley, ably aided by hair and make-up designer Ivana Primorac, repeatedly transforms Mirren from one era to another, often during the flick of an eye. This venerable actor hits all her marks – watch her posture arch and straighten, hear her voice almost sparkle as a young girl and devolve into sterner stuff as age, health and crises take their toll, and take notice of how her body will gently rock back and forth in a gesture she retained all her life. We witness the intellectual growth of this young girl through her teen years, jolted by the death of her father, King George, and marred by Europe’s clumsy descent into another war. These were duty-driven times when she reluctantly but with a steely sense of purpose, exhibited a maturity her troubled realm will come to rely on. If we don’t understand that she understands how she possesses power through influence, all we would get is an impersonation of familiar public moments and little else. The full sweep of the play’s chronology assures us, as the play’s audience, that there is substance here.
Elizabeth’s personality manages to serve her well, as it bumps up against prime ministers large and small, modest and arrogant, grounded and unsteady, each one learning how to back out of the room while maintaining a modicum of dignity – some more successfully than others. Director Stephen Daldry has carefully assisted an estimable ensemble in extracting choice moments, as minister after minister must attend their weekly meetings, policy reviews masquerading as afternoon tea sessions.
Among the passing parade of spot-on depictions are Dylan Baker, capturing the boyish charm of a politically naive John Majors; Judith Ivey, giving the Queen some unladylike push-back as Margaret Thatcher; the rumpled bulldog Winston Churchill, trying to secure a place in the Queen’s confidence as a seasoned grandfather figure, done to perfection by Dakin Williams, and seemingly her favorite, when it comes to sheer camaraderie, Richard McCabe’s humane, almost homespun Harold Wilson. When the crisis builds concerning the Suez Canal, she laces her colloquies with Sir Anthony Eden with just enough starch to make it clear that she is, indeed, thank you very much, on top of all the issues. A simple “I read everything” puts his borderline paternalism to rest.
Lest one feels put off by the prospect of a come-to-life series of historical Madame Tussaud-inspired dioramas, there is a different prospect on offer. Here is a to-be-cherished opportunity to experience capital G great capital A acting. Two of the most celebrated and honored grande dames of the theatre of the last century made their mark in roles about royalty. Laurence Housman’s 1931 drama “Victoria Regina” provided Helen Hayes with the role that she became identified with, which required her to depict the British monarch from youth to old age, and with a reputation that resulted in having a Broadway theatre named for her. Thirty years later, Julie Harris brilliantly mastered the same role for television’s Hallmark Hall of Fame. And now, Helen Mirren joins that small list of greats.
Talking of greats, few people have worked with as many greats as Robert Lewis. His penetrating, well-written autobiography “Slings & Arrows: Theater in My Life” has been in paperback for a while, from Applause Books, and in it, you will find an overflowing life, filled with the likes of Julie Harris, Lillian Hellman, Marilyn Monroe and Tallulah Bankhead, not to mention Stella Adler, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Agnes De Mille. You’ll also be acquainted with how Lewis worked with Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Alan Jay Lerner, Charlie Chaplin and yes, even Eleanora Duse . . . . the new Broadway season promises to introduce several new musicals, and if you’d like to ground yourself in their ancestry, pick up a pick-up [you may need it to tote this tome home], and buy David Leopold’s “Irving Berlin’s Show Business.” Coming in at more than 225 pages, it’s not a coffee table book – it’s a coffee table on its own. That’s because Leopold has peppered this work with many dozens of full-color photos, production stills and publicity shots, all of them delicious. Berlin was another giant in the world of theatre, his 100+ years churning out classic after classic – from half a dozen Ziegfeld Follies, five Music Box Revues and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” “Easter Parade” and more, all brimming with numbers that got recorded in every style, by all of the country’s greatest warblers – it’s the true chronicle of American music . . . I’m re-referring “Wendy and the Lost Boys,” Julie Salamon’s captivating biography of Wendy Wasserstein. Now that Heidi has returned to Broadway, it’s fitting that this loving look at a genuine genius of her era be read and enjoyed . . . and going back to the importance of accurate, character-specific costuming, there’s a very comprehensive little volume simply titled “Edith Head,” a commendable compilation pulled together by Isabella Alston and Kathryn Dixon, for TAJ Books International. Head received thirty-five academy Award nominations, winning eight Oscars, a still-standing record. It’s loaded with sketches and full-color photos from her decades-long career.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His play, a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts. ArtAge published his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.” He recently accepted a staff position presenting a variety of theatre-themed sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details]. His new series of live, in-person conversations there, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . . ,” will next feature Susan Stroman on June 1. Two more one-day in-depth explorations of iconic works are on his calendar: “The King & I” on May 19, followed by “Chicago” on July 14. These sessions feature segments from his exclusive interviews with theatre greats, including Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Ann Reinking, Debra Monk, Barbara Cook, and many others. His interview pieces and feature articles on the performing arts have appeared in Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other outlets.