The Magazine

ISN'T IT PATHETIC?

Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon, Unsatisfied Women

Jun 2, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 37 • By LISA SCHIFFREN
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Despite negative reviews in all I the New York papers, the night I saw An American Daughter, the latest Broadway offering by the Pulitzer-prize- winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, the audience was packed with visibly high-powered, sophisticated Manhattanites. They bore little resemblance to the now-typical Broadway audience of tourists, suburbanites, aging Jews, and homosexuals.


That Wasserstein can bring such an audience into a Broadway theater indicates just what a cultural icon she has become. Her work is as pure a reflection of what the liberal establishment thinks of itself and the rest of us as, say, the punditry of her close friend Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist. In particular, she is understood to be the chronicler of America's women. Not all of them, to be sure; just the best and the brightest.


An American Daughter is the latest installation in the saga of the Mount Holyoke class of 1972 -- its friends, relatives, and significant others, their life choices, and the consequences that follow. Wasserstein began the series with Uncommon Women and Others, set at Mount Holyoke before graduation and over the next few years as a group of young women begin to construct their lives at a moment rolled by feminist promises. It was followed by Isn't It Romantic, featuring Janie, a funny, smart but somewhat unfocused, overweight but adorable Jewish woman, and her best friend, Harriet, a thin, driven WASP, dealing with men, marriage, and independence against a backdrop of feminist orthodoxy. Janie, the Wasserstein stand-in, decides that marriage is too much of a compromise of selfhood.


In the Pulitzer-prize-winning Heidi Chronicles, Heidi, an amalgam of Janie and Harriet, pursues a career as an art historian, conducts an affair with a man who becomes a philandering liberal politician, and ends up alone with an adopted baby, wondering whether she was the only one who took the dictates of feminism seriously.


The Sisters Rosensweig, her biggest hit, tells the story of three sisters at midlife, and their failed or deeply troubled relationships with inadequate men.


Now Wasserstein has moved on to politics. An American Daughter, set in Washington, has a plot loosely based on the Zoe Baird confirmation fiasco. As it opens, Lyssa Dent Hughes, a physician and advocate of medical care for the poor, has just been nominated to be surgeon general. A graduate of Miss Porter's and a college classmate of the president's wife, Lyssa is the daughter of a conservative senator from Indiana. As played by Kate Nelligan, she is cool and contained, organized and professional. She is married to a slightly schlumpy Jewish sociologist, Walter Abrahmson, who loves and is proud of her but is facing his own midlife crisis, exacerbated by his wife's sudden quantum leap up the success ladder. Some years earlier, Walter wrote a book called Toward a Lesser Elite that was the defining liberal text of its moment. He has done little of note since. The couple have two sons, whose voices are heard offstage, but who are never seen, which seems like an unintentionally accurate depiction of the role of children in the lives of Wasserstein-style superwomen.


Lyssa's best friend, Judith Kaufman, is a black Jewish oncologist profoundly miserable about her childlessness and nearing the end of unsuccessful in-vitro fertilization efforts. What the author intended by making Judith black is a puzzle -- as written, the character is entirely Jewish, with no specific attributes to suggest black cultural identity -- though perhaps she wants to suggest Judith is even more of an outsider than the usual Wasserstein stand-in.


Two former students of Walter's also figure prominently. First there is Morrow McCarthy (Bruce Norris), a close family friend who is, we are told, a gay conservative. The character, who is not notably conservative, turns out to be based on Andrew Sullivan, the not notably conservative former New Republic editor, which suggests just how insular Wassetstein's universe of references is. The second student is a "neo-feminist" named Quincy Quince who has written a hot book on gender and who uses her almost parodically aggressive sexuality to pursue a media career.


Lyssa is eager to be the surgeon general, not for any self-serving reason but because there is just so much good she can do. This good amounts to protecting the "right to choose," which is threatened as usual, and providing health care for the poor.