Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 3, $40 - $139
“I wrote this play because I had this image of a woman standing up at a women’s meeting saying, ‘I’ve never been so unhappy in my life,’” Wendy Wasserstein told Time magazine in a 1989 interview about The Heidi Chronicles. “Talking to friends, I knew there was this feeling around, in me and in others, and I thought it should be expressed theatrically. But it wasn’t. The more angry it made me that these feelings weren’t being expressed, the more anger I put into that play.” Twenty-six years later, The Heidi Chronicles is being revived on Broadway for the first time, in a production directed by Tony winner Pam MacKinnon (A Delicate Balance, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that opened at the Music Box Theatre on March 19. But little of that anger is evident in what turns out to be a kind of tepid time-capsule experience that lacks energy and fervor; instead, it feels like an outdated story that is past its prime. Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss stars as Heidi Holland, a smart woman who is considering having it all — both a career and a family — as she comes of age in the 1960s and ’70s and then has to reconfigure her hopes and dreams through the 1980s. In the first act, Wasserstein (The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter) follows Heidi as she attends a high school dance in Chicago in 1965, meets the aggressive Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs) at a 1968 rally for Eugene McCarthy, goes to a women’s meeting in Ann Arbor in 1970, and protests the paucity of women artists in a 1974 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago as she searches for her purpose in life. In the second act, all of which takes place in New York in the 1980s, she goes to a baby shower, appears on a morning TV show, and has a confab at the Plaza as she tries to come to grips with the decisions she’s made as she approaches forty without a husband, children, or a real home base.
Each act begins with Heidi at a podium, delivering a lecture in 1989 on such overlooked women artists as Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Clara Peeters, and Lilly Martin Spencer. Those scenes show Heidi as a strong, intelligent, confident, and funny woman, more than comfortable in her own skin. However, in the flashbacks, she is lost and uncertain, most often an observer who doesn’t take action, allowing others — primarily but not exclusively men — to take control. Heidi is more of a humanist than a feminist, as is the play itself, but in 2015, with more opportunities than ever before for women — although there’s obviously still a long, long way to go — the conflicts Heidi faces don’t seem as dramatic as they might have been in 1989, and her diffidence or sometimes seeming paralysis denies the narrative some necessary conflict. We never quite understand why she is best friends with Susan (Ali Ahn), who is far more concerned with appearances than real depth; why she is drawn so much to the egocentric Scoop, even after he’s married; and what she truly gets out of her long friendship with Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham). All three supporting roles are played as caricatures who don’t seem to fit in with Heidi’s life. and the songs Wasserstein uses for each scene have become clichéd, from Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Janis Joplin’s “Take a Piece of My Heart,” all of which today are overkill, substituting for what we don’t see in Heidi. Like the character she portrays, Moss is at her best when delivering the illustrated lectures, relaxed and charming, someone you want to spend time with, but in the memory scenes, she is as understated and frustrating as Heidi. Rising star Tracee Chimo steals the show, playing four very different characters, Fran, Molly, Betsy, and April, making the most memorable statement of the evening when she declares, “Either you shave your legs or you don’t.” Heidi, and Moss, falls somewhere in the middle, and even if that’s the point, it doesn’t make for gripping theater. In 1989, The Heidi Chronicles earned Wasserstein the Pulitzer Prize, and she became the first solo woman to win a Tony for Best Play. But it feels very different all these years later.