'The Heidi Chronicles': Theater Review

The Heidi Chronicles Production Still - H 2015
Joan Marcus

The Heidi Chronicles Production Still - H 2015

Nice to see you, Wendy Wasserstein, even in a patchy production

Elisabeth Moss goes from Peggy Olson to another character paddling in the slipstream of feminism in the Broadway revival of Wendy Wasserstein's era-defining play.

In one of the lectures that open each act of The Heidi Chronicles, Elisabeth Moss as title character Heidi Holland discusses two portraits by under-appreciated female American Impressionist painters, whose subjects appear to stand apart while closely studying their surroundings. In that engaged detachment, she likens the women depicted to her own profession of art historian: "Being neither the painter, nor the casual observer, but a highly informed spectator." This key insight also defines the protagonist of Wendy Wasserstein's decades-spanning baby boomer play, an ambivalent, recessive character who remains mostly reactive until a stunning public meltdown monologue late in the action.

That speech, delivered in 1986, is an East Coast girls' high school alumnae association address, prompted by the topic "Women, Where Are We Going." In it, Heidi confesses through real tears to feeling "stranded," despite her feminist formation and the community-building experience of the women's movement that was supposed to safeguard against precisely that feeling.

A collage of generational experience that's stronger on cumulative rewards than scene-to-scene conflict, the play limits access to Heidi's inner life for much of its excessive 2-hour, 40 minute running time. And Moss' opaque performance contributes to keep her at a distance. So it's a testament to the Mad Men star's appeal that she's ultimately so affecting in the role — even if the emotional rush is a long time coming. She's the main reason to see director Pam MacKinnon's mixed bag of a revival, though it nonetheless reaffirms the merits of Wasserstein's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning 1988 play, which remains smart and funny, tender and big-hearted.

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An imperfect but nonetheless illuminating work, The Heidi Chronicles is also refreshingly expansive in its view. It takes in not just the gains and disappointments of feminism, but also the ways in which both men and women navigated the rocky path from the social upheavals and consciousness raising of the 1960s through the narcissism of the Me Decade to the rude awakenings of the '80s, with its culture of greed and the gut punch of the AIDS crisis. Wasserstein's death in 2006 of lymphoma at age 55 drapes a poignant veil of melancholy over her observations.

Whether those observations are of interest as social history or still have traction today will be a matter of opinion. But the reactions stirred up by Patricia Arquette's comments at the Oscars about wage equality for women suggest the latter, even if the influential play's themes and the author's distinctive voice have inevitably been diluted by imitation. (In the case of Gina Gionfriddo's 2012 play, Rapture, Blister, Burn, a direct descendant of Heidi, the update is arguably more impactful.)

The chronological main action traces the evolution of Heidi, starting in Chicago in 1965, when she emerges from high school. It proceeds through her college and post-graduate years, during which she's frequently needled by the judgments and expectations of her peers; then continues as her career as an art academic and author takes shape, ending in the late '80s, when she takes stock and seeks fulfillment on her own terms.

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In addition to her best friend from school, Susan (Ali Ahn), who bounces amusingly from boy-chaser to shepherdess in a Montana women's collective to powerful film and TV industry executive, two key figures accompany Heidi on and off through the years. Witty gay pediatrician Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham) might have been her true love if not for his sexuality; there's friction in the relationship when she's too obtuse to acknowledge that his struggle is no less important than her own. And Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs) is an idealistic journalist she meets at a Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign mixer; while Heidi describes him as "a charismatic creep," their flirtation continues, even after he becomes part of the establishment, marrying for money and founding a successful lifestyle magazine that epitomizes the grasping ethos of the 1980s.

The characters are drawn with acuity and their transitions echoed in the changing times that provide the play's backdrop. But MacKinnon treats much of the connective tissue as heavy-handed sketch material — a women's consciousness meeting, a feminist protest demonstration, a power lunch, a TV morning chat show panel, a baby shower — reducing many of the secondary figures to blunt caricatures. Radical lesbian feminist Fran (one of a series of roles played by the protean comedic actress Tracee Chimo) states categorically at one point: "Either you shave your legs or you don't." However, Wasserstein's writing has a lot more probing nuance than that, and MacKinnon's broad direction too often steamrolls it.

The production's unattractive design elements don't help. John Lee Beatty's forte is impeccable period décor, and this is a rare miss for him; the white-walled institutional set stifles any sense of time or place, serving mainly as a canvas for messy projections of current trends or news events. Jessica Pabst's costumes are no better, offering up flower-power fancy dress or buying into that old canard that feminists are allergic to style. While Moss appears on the Playbill cover in a sexy red number, onstage she's mostly stuck in shapeless sacks and washed-out colors.

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However, the intelligence and sensitivity of the writing keep it absorbing, and the lead actors are solid, even if nobody's giving a performance for the ages.

Biggs manages to make a manipulative, self-serving philanderer oddly likeable, which is crucial to Heidi's enduring affection for him, and Pinkham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder) tosses off Peter's bon mots with genial aplomb. ("According to my mental health friends, we're heading into a decade of self-obsession," he says in 1974. "I am simply at the forefront of the movement.") His characterization darkens several shades when Heidi resurfaces in his life and appears oblivious to the losses gay men have suffered in the AIDS epidemic.

The heart of this lovely, thoughtful play, of course, is Heidi, as she struggles — like the women Impressionists she so admires — to break free from the margins and define herself as a complete person, without any restrictive gender modifiers. Moss plays the role largely in muted tones, showing occasional glimpses of her internal conflict when Heidi admits to needing the validation of Scoop's attentions, or to selfishly counting on Peter to remain "desperately and hopelessly in love" with her. Her flashes of resentment are energizing, and given how often she's described as caustic, a little more of that edge wouldn't hurt the performance.

But Moss beautifully uncorks Heidi's bottled-up emotions in the aforementioned monologue, which remains a gorgeous piece of stage writing and a panoramic window into a complex character. The scene — in which Heidi describes her aloneness in a locker room full of assertive women before an aerobics class — has a curious retroactive effect. It instantly expands our understanding and invites us to feel the vulnerability of a character who, true to life, remains unsure about her choices and is still searching for answers.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs, Bryce Pinkham, Tracee Chimo, Ali Ahn, Leighton Bryan, Elise Kibler, Andy Truschinski
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Sound designer: Jill BC DuBoff
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Susan Gallin, Mary Lu Roffe, Eagle Productions, Stacy Jacobs, LTPS Productions, Gabrielle Palitz, Sally Horchow, Rebecca Gold, Ken Greiner, Grimaldi & WSProductions, Jamie duRoy & Friends, Amy Kaissar, Suzanne Friedman, Ed Goldstone, Jessica Genick, Will Trice