The Heidi Chronicles | Critical Review by Gerald Weales

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Heidi Chronicles.
This section contains 792 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Gerald Weales

SOURCE: "Prize Problems: 'Chronicles' & 'Cocktail Hour'," in Commonweal, Vol. CXVI, No. 9, May 5, 1989, pp. 279-80.

An American novelist and drama critic, Weales is the author of such books as American Drama since World War II (1962) and The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960s (1969). In the following excerpt from a review of a Broadway performance of The Heidi Chronicles, he comments on the play's major weaknesses, particularly centering on the character of Heidi, whom he considers both unconvincing and lacking in dramatic interest.

Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles began as a workshop production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre; then, shepherded by the Seattle Rep's Daniel Sullivan, it moved to a well-received off-Broadway debut and then to Broadway; it has now been blessed by the Pulitzer Prize committee. It is a typical American-theater success story of the 1980s, but I have trouble working up much enthusiasm for its triumphant journey.

The Heidi of the title is an art historian, a presumably intelligent and sensitive woman who moves from 1965 to 1989, picking her way through the ideational thickets of those years, only to find that the goal of her generation, to become an independent woman in a male world, brings emptiness with it. The audience follows Heidi's progress in brief scenes that teeter on the edge of broad satire and sometimes, as in the consciousness-raising meeting, fall over completely. Heidi remains pretty much the same throughout the fifteen years—concerned, but a little cold, a little distant, her involvement tinged with self-irony. On her stroll down memory lane, she is accompanied by the two men closest to her—a homosexual doctor who remains her best friend (and incidentally provides an excuse to bring in AIDS as an item in Wasserstein's cultural catalogue) and a fast-talking charmer, sometimes her lover, an intellectual conman who plays the main chance and persists in confusing the fashionable with the significant. Heidi's oldest woman friend, the only other important character in the play, is a Wasserstein joke, a chameleon who becomes whatever the moment requires: a ditsy sex-pot, a jargonesque feminist, a member of an ecological commune, a power-lunch paragon in the entertainment business.

The chief weakness of the play is that it has no dramatic center. Heidi is so muted in her behavior that she serves as little more than a foil for the more animated characters—a kind of wall on which Wasserstein can hang her snapshots. Joan Allen is one of the finest reactors among American performers (consider last year's Tony-winning performance in Burn This), but however fascinating it is to watch Allen work, Heidi remains flaccid. We are supposed to understand the distress within the character, which surfaces primarily in runs of nervousness and in one unlikely overt moment in which she turns a speech at an alumnae gathering into a high whine of generational regret. At the end of the play, she has adopted a child and the suggestion is that she has found a certain solidity as a single mother, but nothing in the play or the character makes motherhood look like anything but an occasion for Heidi's next disappointment. The ending is as arbitrary as that of Wasserstein's earlier hit, Isn't It Romantic, in which the heroine decides for no very clear reason not to marry the man she loves; perhaps she had been to see My Brilliant Career at her local moviehouse.

If Heidi as activist and Heidi as unrealized lover are a bit difficult to accept in her Chronicles, Heidi as art historian is impossible. She is supposed to be an expert on female artists, correcting the sexual imbalance in the history of art, and we see her in lectures at the beginning of each act. Her manner is oddly frothy, her disclosure decorated with what I think of as wee academic jokies. The wee academic jokie, of which there are far too many on campuses, is not funny if it sounds as though it were written into the lecture, if it is taken out of the classroom context, if it makes the speaker sound as though she were apologizing for her subject matter. So it is with all of Heidi's jokies. Her lectures diminish the whole enterprise of rethinking the female presence in art. In part, that is a product of the unanchored Heidi described in the paragraph above. In part, it grows out of the play's tendency to trivialize the genuine concerns of women in particular, radicals in general, by emphasizing the fashionable patina on social change. As a comic writer, Wasserstein can see what is ludicrous in the convoluted social history of the last fifteen years. On the serious side, The Heidi Chronicles is one of those geeit-didn't-turn-out-the-way-we-expected plays, another offspring of The Big Chill.

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This section contains 792 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gerald Weales
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