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Take Heidi Holland, the title character of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, and clone her twice. Give one of the resulting women a South Carolina drawl, the other a little backbone, and you’ve got Fen and Jesse, the two characters who inhabit Amstel in Tel Aviv, a new one-act play by local writer and actress Allyson Currin.
Thankfully, Fen and Jesse, who meet as roommates at a posh girls-only boarding school, don’t whine nearly as much as Wasserstein’s permanently unhappy heroine. Instead, they shriek—upon meeting, upon parting, upon matriculating. (“Ah put mah phone number under mah yearbook photo,” wails Fen, the Southerner, as they go their separate ways on graduation day, “but ah wrote five more pages in the back!”) For some reason, their high-strung antics never become as annoying as you might think, which says a lot about the energy and charm of Melissa Flaim and Elizabeth Kitsos, who also played the parts in Source’s workshop production last summer.
But Fen and Jesse’s learning curve certainly runs parallel to Heidi’s. They forge their friendship in joint endeavors that include a talent show and an awkward prom night that ends when they abandon their dates for each other’s company—remember where Heidi meets Peter? They leave school bursting with hope and promise, learn the vagaries of life in the real world, and despite divergent career paths and changing values, remain fast friends across decades. (The title comes from an oath they swear to meet at 30 for a beer in some romantic, history-steeped place.) Fen, who becomes a famous TV news correspondent, comes to terms with unmet expectations in a tearful speech at an awards dinner; Heidi becomes a noted art historian and has her weepy epiphany during a luncheon lecture. Jesse, who publishes one celebrated novel and never finishes another, finds real happiness not as the littérateuse everyone expected her to be, but in her family and her work with at-risk children; Heidi stays single, but she adopts.
It’s not that Currin has ripped off The Heidi Chronicles. She’s got her own ideas about how friendships evolve and goals change, and she comes at them from a different angle. Amstel is less maudlin, too; at the prom, the girls giggle over a classmate who, after too much sloe gin, winds up with “chicken cordon bleu all over that pretty red taffeta.” Even in high school, Heidi Holland would’ve been pensively distraught over what such a catastrophe said about the role of women in society. And Currin’s play has no grand pretensions about its message, which is that real friends push their friends to achieve, challenge their assumptions, help them confront the equally frightening prospects of failure and success—and then allow them the freedom to make important choices according to their own lights. As a dramatic point, it’s hardly an earthshaking revelation, but it’s made with reasonable wit and understated elegance.
At just over an hour and 15 minutes, Amstel sags a bit toward the end—perhaps because there’s barely enough conflict in Currin’s premise to support a tightly written short story. (Fen and Jesse lead remarkably untroubled lives, when you stop to think about it.) And there’s no real resolution in the final scenes, just a spelling out of what the audience already suspects. But then, Wasserstein somehow managed to win a Tony for an evening-length play about a woman with no real problems. Currin has more interesting characters and an engaging couple of actors to play them; if Amstel isn’t a life-changing piece of theater, it’s certainly an agreeable and reasonably entertaining one.CP