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Wasserstein wrote with gentle compassion

Pulitzer Prize-winner's plays ‘ideas that happen to be written as comedies’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wendy Wasserstein was wittily aware of the times in which she lived, and how women survived and even thrived in the second half of the 20th century.

And as one of those women, she survived and thrived while doing her favorite things. Among them: celebrating her young daughter, listening to Broadway musicals (she was a big fan) or giggling about the vagaries of women’s fashion — from plaid (“who wears it and why”) to more edgy, supermodel duds.

Not that she wasn’t serious. In his introduction to a collection of her plays, Andre Bishop, who produced almost all of Wasserstein’s stage works, has called them “plays of ideas that happen to be written as comedies.”

She was a thoughtful, precise writer who wrote with gentle compassion. Yet humor was the way she often made her point, grabbing an audience with laughs that often led to something more profound.

It was impossible not to like the 55-year-old Wasserstein, who died Monday of lymphoma. For journalists, she was a dream interview. Friendly, concise and often graciously funny when I called to ask a question or two, particularly about one of her theatrical colleagues. And she knew everyone.

Wasserstein was always ready with a quote, particularly when asked about her good friends, who seemed to overflow from the theater industry into the world at large. It was Wasserstein, for example, who suggested to old friend William Finn that he write the score for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and she tirelessly championed the composer’s contributions after the show’s success, first off-Broadway and later on Broadway.

And Wasserstein could be remarkably generous to reporters, too. In 1990, she sent me an autographed copy of her collection of essays, “Bachelor Girls.” It was inscribed: “For Michael — with best wishes and thanks for page 195.” The page is Wasserstein’s giddy account of not believing rumors that she had received the Pulitzer Prize for “The Heidi Chronicles” — until she got it confirmed by The Associated Press, namely me.

Yet she could sweetly deflect questions about her personal life and rarely talked about it in public.

In that respect, it was difficult to really get to know Wasserstein. But I know the women she created for the stage, and I like to think that I knew her through them.

There’s Holly, from “Uncommon Women and Others,” Wasserstein’s first hit, saying at the end of the play: “I keep a list of options. Just from today’s lunch, there’s law, insurance, marry Leonard Woolf, have a baby, bird-watch in Bolivia. A myriad of openings.” This was the young Wasserstein, just out of college and ready for all of life’s possibilities. And Janie Blumberg, defiantly dancing alone as the curtain falls on “Isn’t It Romantic.” Single, is OK, too, Janie seems to be saying. Just keep on moving to the music.

By the time we get to “The Heidi Chronicles,” its title character, Heidi Holland, isn’t so sure which way to turn. Disillusionment has set in — with the women’s movement and with herself. Yet the play finds its final image in Heidi singing softly to her infant daughter and proclaiming, “A heroine for the twenty-first (century)!” Maybe, motherhood wasn’t so bad, after all.

And then there were those glorious sisters Rosensweig: Sara, Pfeni and the aptly named Gorgeous, who, in the original production was played by Madeline Kahn, another woman who left us far too soon. A mother-daughter moment also ends this play, with Sara, the oldest Rosensweig sister, celebrating her past, telling her own story to her eager daughter, Tess. The torch has been passed.

In “Third,” Wasserstein’s final play (which ended a too-brief run at Lincoln Center in December), her fiftysomething central character, a feminist professor named Laurie, takes stock of her life and finds it has been full of surprises.

“When did you grow up without asking me?” Laurie says to one of her daughters. It’s only one of the questions she poses as her personal and professional lives are upended.

Sometimes people need to re-evaluate if they are to grow gracefully into old age, the playwright seemed to be saying. Wasserstein never got the chance, but I’d like to think all her stage heroines will live on to point the way for future generations.