Monday, March 16, 2015

The Heidi Chronicles

Tracee Chimo, Jason Biggs, Elisabeth Moss, and Bryce Pinkham.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Peggy Olson, the barrier-breaking copy chief on AMC’s Mad Men, is surely kin to Heidi Holland, second-wave feminist art historian and central figure of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1989 dramedy The Heidi Chronicles. Thus it seems only fitting that, for the first New York revival of Wasserstein’s still-vibrant character study, Heidi should be played by Elisabeth Moss, television’s Peggy. I’m sure this will have double-consciousness effect on many in the audience.

The Heidi Chronicles begins in 1989, at Columbia University, where Heidi is now a professor. There’s a gradual erasure: in the middle of a lecture on neglected women artists of the 18th and 19th-century, Heidi begins to recede into her own past. We meet her at seventeen, in her hometown of Chicago, at the dance where she meets her lifelong friend Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham). We see her as a “Get Clean for Gene” kid in Manchester, New Hampshire, where she meets another significant man: her once and future lover, Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs). The seventies find Heidi at a consciousness-raising women’s group at the University of Michigan; protesting the lack of female representation at the University of Chicago; and coming to terms with her fractured personal life. Along with Scoop (radical journalist-cum-lifestyle magazine founder) and Peter (chief pediatrician at New York hospital), Heidi hits her professional stride in the eighties, becoming (or, perhaps more accurately, being thrust into the role of) an avatar of yuppie-boomer status.

Given these events, it’s perhaps understandable that some questioned whether this play would pack the punch it did twenty-five years ago, when it was firmly identifiable as a comment on current culture. Those fears of datedness, however, were completely unfounded. The Heidi Chronicles is as fresh, alive, and necessary as ever. Like the works of the female artists Heidi champions, this is not merely a museum piece; it is a living testament to the life, achievements, and struggles of a modern woman. And Pam MacKinnon’s smashing production hits its stride early and fires on all cylinders.

Heidi is a mammoth role. From the prologue onward, she rarely ever leaves the stage; the actress playing her also needs to convincingly age from seventeen to forty-two over the course of two-and-a-half hours. Having seen Moss, I can’t imagine anyone else handling the demands of the part better. Her Heidi is confident and insecure; contradictory and sincere; problematic and deeply human. She highlights all the character’s shades of gray and then some. For example, there’s always been a moment in this play that’s seemed hard to get right. Over the course of the consciousness-raising scene, Heidi has to go from skeptical outsider to supportive believer, and gain the acceptance of the radical lesbian feminist Fran (one of the quartet of roles played by the always-welcome Tracee Chimo). She goes from defending her continued sexual relationship with Scoop, who treats her like crap, to telling the young and impressionable Becky (Elise Kibler), “I hope our daughters never feel like us. I hope our daughters feel so fucking worthwhile. Do you promise we can accomplish that much?” It’s a moment that could so easily feel fake and forced.

Moss nails that moment.  I have chills just thinking about it now.

And she’s not alone. Pinkham, on leave from his starring role in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, resists the quirky gay stereotypes that a weaker actor could lean on playing Peter. His coming-out to Heidi (Moss is a brilliant scene partner here) is a marvel; fifteen years later, when he interprets Heidi’s acceptance of a teaching position in Minnesota as her abandoning him at the height of the AIDS crisis, he could wring tears out of the most hardened audience member. Boyd Gaines and Tom Hulce won Tony and Emmy for this role, respectively; don’t be surprised if Pinkham follows suit.

As Scoop, Biggs strikes a delicate balance of smarm and charm. You never forget he’s an asshole, albeit a good-hearted one; thus, you understand Heidi’s continued attraction to him. Ali Ahn is superb as Heidi’s longtime friend Susan Johnston, who, like Heidi, lives a half-dozen lives over the course of the play, from Montana commune farmer (the seventies) to power-suited Hollywood hotshot (the eighties). In addition to Chimo and Kibler, Leighton Bryan and Andy Truschinski do well in a handful of small roles.

But at the end of the day, it’s Heidi’s play, and we’re fortunate to have such a fine actor embodying her. I wish Wendy Wasserstein were alive to see the power that her play still holds.

[Mid-mezzanine center, TDF]

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