The Heidi Chronicles | Critical Review by Kent Black

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Heidi Chronicles.
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Critical Review by Kent Black

SOURCE: "The Wendy Chronicles," in Harper's Bazaar, Vol. 123, No. 3339, March, 1990, pp. 154, 162.

In the following review, Black offers praise for Bachelor Girls.

"I think one of the reasons I took up writing is my need to make order out of disorder … that and this problem I have of remembering everything that has ever happened and been said to me," says playwright Wendy Wasserstein, settling down with a cup of coffee in her cluttered apartment to discuss her new book of essays Bachelor Girls, due out next month. "You know, I might have made my mother truly happy and become a lawyer if a friend of mine at Mt. Holyoke college hadn't suggested we take playwriting over at Smith … the reason being that there was much better shopping in Northampton than in South Hadley."

It is a telling comment for the 39-year-old writer. In her plays, characters often struggle between traditional values and the goals they have set for themselves. Though the conflicts are serious, both for the characters and their creator, Wasserstein's instinct is to employ her considerable sense of irony to help gain perspective.

One essay that typifies her indefatigable wit and depth is entitled "Jean Harlow's Wedding Night." It concerns the author's recollection of flying to Paris to meet a man she loves. The affair proves to be a disaster and Wasserstein's reaction when the man tells her that he has fallen for another woman is to battle rejection with humor and anecdote. Though her ex-lover's indifference moves her to tears, she ends her sobbing in the Jardin des Tuileries by walking to the Jeu de Paume to see a Degas exhibit. "I even hummed a little Cole Porter on the way. I am, after all, a resourceful person, and I love Paris in the springtime."

Wasserstein, a product of Brooklyn and Manhattan's Upper East Side, fondly remembers her childhood filled with dance lessons at the June Taylor School followed by Broadway matinees. Her mother Lola, "a perpetual dance student even at age 70," has figured prominently in her life and art. Not only was she the inspiration for the archetypal Jewish mother in her second play Isn't It Romantic, but is also at the core of the struggle that gives her daughter's work such resonance. "No matter how successful I become as a playwright," says Wasserstein, "my mother would still be thrilled to hear me tell her I'd just lost 20 pounds, gotten married and become a lawyer."

In her three major plays to date, Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic and The Heidi Chronicles—winner of both a 1989 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award—the characters must all address the changing roles of women in the last two decades: career or family, feminism or June Cleaver's values. It is a dilemma best summed up by a character in The Heidi Chronicles who says, "Either you shave your legs or you don't."

Bachelor Girls illustrates familiar themes. As a contributing editor to New York Woman, Wasserstein wrote these pieces for her column for more immediate gratification "since it usually takes at least two years to get a play onstage … if ever." She also admits that the essay form allows her to develop some of the ideas she employs on the stage. "I like plays because they are live, and no matter how funny something is, if the audience doesn't laugh, then it doesn't work," she says. "But there are no characters to hide behind in the essays. They are much tougher to write in some ways because of their directness."

Indeed, Wasserstein draws on personal experience in all of the pieces in this collection. True to her claim of "remembering everything," she connects moments of her youth to those of her adulthood. In "A Phone of Her Own," she recollects wonderfully those pivotal "phone" conversations in a young girl's life: from the world-shaking calls of pre-adolescence when grownups have the nerve to make a youngster hang up after only an hour, to the heart-stopping LDs (long distance) on the college dormitory pay phone, to its hated position in the adult world when every ring brings yet another unwanted intrusion.

To her credit, however, the punch in these essays is delivered by more than bittersweet memories and pointed one-liners. Behind the "know-what-I-mean" posturings are Wasserstein's studies of her generation's convolutions through the '60s, '70s and '80s, her musings about women who have traded in NOW values for Volvos and kiddie car seats.

Though labels such as "important writer of her generation" often arouse suspicions, Wasserstein may actually deserve the mantle. She is not only attuned to her peers but also to women of any generation. "I was lecturing recently at a college and I met these young women who told me they had it all planned out: family, profession, political affiliations, everything," she recalls. "But there seemed to be a problem with that, too. Being so reasonable about life at 19, weren't they missing out on a certain passion?"

There are sketches in Bachelor Girls that will cause audible laughter; in fact, comparisons to Woody Allen are not entirely fatuous. There is a decidedly regional flavor to Wasserstein's humor and the mercurial shifts in perspective from superiority to inferiority are best expressed in essays like "Perfect Women Who are Bearable," in which she categorizes chimp-ologist Jane Goodall as "bearable." ("It would be helpful to talk with Jane about where to meet available men.") Finally, there is the pathos present throughout all of Wasserstein's work. Yes, she is a witty writer, but she never fails to show that comedy is serious business, a perspective earned by sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes tough encounters with life.

"I am always interested in exploring the ideas behind the experiences with my own tortured adolescence, my Aunt Florence's son's bar mitzvah or my mother's eccentricity. Of course, every time I would finish one of these essays and send it off to my editor," she laughs, "I would immediately call her up and scream, 'Wait a minute, you can't print that!'"

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This section contains 1,005 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Richard Hornby