City Paper is not for tourists
Time hasn’t been quite as unkind as you might expect to Wendy Wasserstein’s 1988 dramedy about a woman who feels she’s being forced to choose between having a life and having a career. Two decades of consciousness-raising notwithstanding, women still face social pressures that men don’t. Glass ceilings haven’t shattered, nor have biological clocks stopped ticking. In fact, the price women pay for professional success may have actually escalated since the playwright set dyspeptic art professor Heidi Holland to quipping, kvetching, and railing about it. Which is not to say The Heidi Chronicles feels particularly fresh or telling in Arena Stage’s revival, only that its concerns haven’t faded. The playwright begins chronicling Heidi when she’s in high school in the mid-’60s, then follows her as she tries on political activism, an affair with a man who feels threatened by her success, and a decade’s worth of women’s causes on the way to the realization that the glow she’s seeking has been inside her all along. The early going is fast and buoyant in Tazewell Thompson’s staging, but Act II’s attempts at seriousness fall flat. Part of the trouble lies in the teaming of a playwright prone to glibness with a director who excels in polishing surface details. But a larger problem is that this same territory has been trod so frequently by heroines from Murphy Brown to Carrie Bradshaw that the whining of Wasserstein’s characters now sounds more exasperating than revelatory. Happily for Arena, the whiners are at least attractive. Ellen Karas is an exquisitely tailored Heidi (at one point she arrives onstage in a dress that appears to have been crafted from a Mondrian canvas) with deadpan timing and an ability to be severe, grim, and quippy all at once. She’s backed by a diverse crew of girlfriends and challenged by a couple of appealing straw men: Marty Lodge as a shamblingly seductive, occasionally charismatic rotter, and Wynn Harmon as a charmer of a gay doctor who brings Heidi up short once per act with a demand that she spend at least a 10th as much time tut-tutting over his struggle as he spends tut-tutting over hers. That said, sharp performances and the production’s hard edges—from color-coordinated checkerboard flooring to an angled projection cube floating above the stage—don’t really make The Heidi Chronicles any less squishy than it was when it won Wasserstein a Pulitzer.