The Heidi Chronicles | Critical Review by Richard Hornby

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Heidi Chronicles.
This section contains 672 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Richard Hornby

SOURCE: A review of The Heidi Chronicles, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 3, Autumn, 1989, pp. 464-65.

An educator, critic, and nonfiction writer, Hornby teaches and writes about drama. In the following, he offers a negative assessment of The Heidi Chronicles.

Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles is a lifeless, vulgar play, rendered all the more irritating by the many awards that this non-playwright has won simply because she is a woman, writing on fashionable issues. Wasserstein does not even begin to know how to construct a play. Her characters are automatons, set in motion as targets for crude ridicule; her plots are aimless; her ideas are trite; her dialogue is pretentiously witless.

Heidi, originally performed at Playwrights Horizons, was transferred to Broadway last March in a surprisingly lavish production, starring the superb Joan Allen in a role well beneath her talent. In thirteen scenes, the play takes its title character from 1965 until today, purporting to depict the problems of an intelligent, single woman in contemporary society. Heidi encounters two men in her youth: A bright boy she first meets at a prep school dance, who eventually becomes a pediatrician, and who turns out to be a homosexual; and a smart-ass womanizer she meets at a McCarthy-for-President rally, who becomes a successful magazine publisher. She becomes the long-term friend of the former, despite his mercurial temperament, and the long-term lover of the latter, despite his many affairs and even his marriage to another woman. She takes a doctorate in art history; dabbles in feminism; becomes a professor; and finally, in 1989, when it is clear that she will probably never marry, she adopts a baby.

Joan Allen, tall, intelligent, beautiful, and charming, was marvelous last year as the dancer in Lanford Wilson's Burn This. That character became involved in a destructive sexual relationship similar to those in Heidi, but she was also articulate and energetic. This character does give two art history lectures in the play that are interesting and humorous in a low-key way, but when speaking with other characters she mostly hems and haws, and an extemporary talk to her finishing school alumnae degenerates into free-associative drivel. Heidi is so passive that she seems to be going through life in a daze. I could never understand why she doesn't tell the stereotypical folk who seem forever to be nagging her—the radical lesbian, the inane TV hostess, the Jewish American Princess, plus Heidi's two loudmouth boyfriends—simply to go to hell. Nor could I understand why a woman as attractive as Joan Allen should be limited to a homosexual and a compulsive philanderer when it comes to men.

The tacked-on, upbeat ending where Heidi adopts a baby (a girl, of course) also seemed implausible, a dea ex machina intended to demonstrated that a woman can find happiness and fulfillment without a husband. Thousands of American couples would like to know how a single, fortyish woman managed quickly to adopt a healthy white infant who, we are told, is intelligent and beautiful. In terms of the drama, moreover, I'd like to know how a character who has so far seemed totally unassertive suddenly found the courage and drive to adopt a child. It takes a lot of time and effort; you don't just pick them up at Bloomingdale's.

I liked Thomas Lynch's set designs early in the play, when he achieved a wide range of locales with simple means—a few hanging streamers to suggest the prep school dance, the bottom half of a huge museum banner to suggest the front of the Art Institute of Chicago. As the scenes progressed, however, the settings became ever more elaborate and mechanized, with revolving periaktoi (three-sided prisms) and sliding floor panels shifting walls and furniture about, until the stage floor seemed as cluttered and busy as a railway station. The growing ponderousness was a visual synecdoche for the play itself, which might have been a simple, unpretentious treatment of a young woman's life, but which turned into a cumbrous morality play about Everywoman in the Eighties.

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This section contains 672 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Richard Hornby
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