The Heidi Chronicles
Music Box Theatre
239 W. 45th Street
Wendy Wasserstein was a beloved figure in the theater community, and there was much grief at her untimely death in 2006. Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for The Heidi Chronicles, a zeitgeist-surfing hit that starred Joan Allen on Broadway. Heidi, along with The Sisters Rosensweig, was her most successful play, a summing up for Baby Boomers and the feminist movement that spans the years from 1965 through the time the play was written, and so Heidi is in a curious sort of time warp, too near and yet too far. It has the air of a smartly written 1970s TV sitcom, with just enough esoteric cultural references to satisfy college-educated audiences, and it isn’t bad, really; if it were worse, it would be easier to write about. As a piece of material, it is always precociously straining toward excellence, but it is also sometimes better than that, painful and personal and honest.
In this new production, Heidi is played by Elisabeth Moss, and this feels like a predictable choice for her since it is so close to her most noted role: Peggy Olson on all those seasons of Mad Men. Moss is an unusual actress because she is drawn to amorphous feelings, half-feelings, so that she often seems to be swimming in an emotional sea. As Peggy on Mad Men, she has been able to be as emotionally exploratory as she likes without ever losing sight of the confines of her character. What Moss needs is a clear structure for her work, and the writing for Peggy gives her that, but Heidi is written by Wasserstein as such a dazed, passive person that Moss herself becomes unmoored from the play and her fellow players. She can be very impressive and touching here, especially in a long monologue where Heidi breaks down while trying to give a speech to young women, but she makes Heidi softer than she should be, and this is an iffy play that needs some hard choices and edges from its actors to really make an impact.
There are two main men in Heidi’s life, both of whom let her down in different ways: the caustic Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham) and the arrogant Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs). Peter charms Heidi at a school dance with his arch joking, but he tells her he’s gay fairly quickly after that, much to her chagrin (Wasserstein was open about her own romantic yearnings for the gay men in her life). Scoop is a living, walking, talking example of the most obnoxious yet attractive male privilege, and though he loves Heidi he marries a much simpler woman, Lisa (Leighton Bryan). Wasserstein’s play ends with two long scenes that Heidi has with Peter and then with Scoop, and they don’t resonate the way they should here, partly because Biggs plays his part all on one childish note. This is a solid play, in some ways, and Moss has fine moments in this production, but this revival is far from ideal.