Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who chronicled the feminist struggles and successes of the baby-boomer generation in such wryly observant works as “The Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosensweig,” has died of lymphoma at the age of 55.
Wasserstein died Monday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said Andre Bishop, header of Lincoln Center Theater and Wasserstein’s close friend and mentor. She had been ill for several months.
Broadway theaters will dim their lights Tuesday in honor of Wasserstein.
“Wendy had a voice like no other and a great sense of the absurd,” said Swoosie Kurtz, who appeared in “Uncommon Women and Others,” Wasserstein’s first stage success. “She could take something that was sad or somber in life, wrap her words around it and somehow make it light and not so disturbing.”
Wasserstein’s writing was known for its sharp, often comedic look about what women had to do to succeed in a world dominated by men.
“She was an extraordinary human being whose work and whose life were extremely intertwined,” said Bishop, who produced most of her works, first at Playwrights Horizons and later at Lincoln Center Theater. “She was not unlike the heroines of most of her plays — a strong-minded, independent, serious good person who happened to have a wicked sense of humor.”
Wasserstein found her greatest popular success with “The Heidi Chronicles,” which won the best-play Tony as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989. Its insecure title character (played by Joan Allen) takes a 20-year journey beginning in the late 1960s and changes her attitudes about herself, men and other women. Equally popular was “The Sisters Rosensweig,” which moved from Lincoln Center to Broadway in 1993, and concerned three siblings who find strength in themselves and in each other.
Her most recent work, “Third,” which ended a New York run last December, dealt with a female college professor, played by Dianne Wiest, whose liberal, feminist convictions are put to the test by a student she sees as the epitome of the white male establishment.
A rumpled observer
In public, Wasserstein was genial, often quite funny, presenting herself as a rumpled observer of her generation.
“So many people, whether they knew her or not, felt somehow connected to her,” Bishop said. “If you went out with her to a restaurant in New York or anywhere in the country — because her plays were done all over the country — it was like going out with a rock star: people coming up to her and saying, ‘How much your work meant to me. I feel like I have seen my life through your eyes.”’
Wasserstein wrote “Uncommon Women and Others” as a Yale School of Drama graduate thesis. The one-act play was expanded and done off-Broadway in 1977 with Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry and Kurtz in the cast. A year later, this satire about the anxieties of female college graduates was filmed for public television with Meryl Streep replacing Close.
The playwright continued her off-Broadway success with “Isn’t It Romantic” — about a free spirit who rejects her fiance and tries to find a life as a single woman.
In 1997, Broadway saw “An American Daughter,” Wasserstein’s story of the political downfall of a perfect career woman, played by Kate Nelligan. It was followed in 2000 by “Old Money,” her look at money, manners and morals at the beginning and end of the 20th century, done at Lincoln Center’s small Mitzi Newhouse Theater.
Using her talents in TV, moviesWhile primarily a playwright, Wasserstein also wrote for TV and the movies, most notably the screenplay for the 1998 film version of Stephen McCauley’s novel, “The Object of My Affection,” about a gay man and a pregnant woman who meet and move in together.
Wasserstein was the author of the best-selling children’s book, “Pamela’s First Musical” (1996). She also wrote two collections of personal essays, “Bachelor Girls,” published in 1990, and “Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties” (2001).
At age 48, Wasserstein had a daughter, Lucy Jane, born in 1999, three months prematurely. Despite persistent speculation, she always declined to reveal the identity of the girl’s father.
“The thing about having a baby (at an) older (age) is that she doesn’t have to live her life for me,” Wasserstein said in an interview with the Forward, a Jewish weekly. “I can see her, I hope, as a person.”
Born Oct. 18, 1950, Wasserstein, the youngest of five children, grew up first in Brooklyn in what she has called, “a nice, middle-class Jewish family,” and later in Manhattan. Her father, Morris, was a textile executive.
She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and then went to Yale University, where she became friends with such budding playwrights as Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato and began her theater career.
Wasserstein is survived by her daughter Lucy Jane; her mother, Lola; a sister, Georgette Levis; and two brothers, Abner, and Bruce Wasserstein, chairman and chief executive of Lazard LLC.
Funeral services will be private.