Heidi’s Struggles Still Relevant
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Heidi’s Struggles Still Relevant

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

When Wendy Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for “The Heidi Chronicles,” her overbearing mother, Lola, is said to have boasted that the prize was a Nobel — even the Pulitzer represented a falling short. Little wonder that the play, which is now back on Broadway, centers on a woman who is deeply conflicted about her own professional success, even as she attempts to balance the competing demands of work and family. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times lauded the revival, which opened in mid-March, as “vibrant,” with a “softly radiant” lead performance by Elizabeth Moss (“Mad Men”) as Heidi.

Pam MacKinnon (who most recently helmed “A Delicate Balance”) directs “The Heidi Chronicles.” She called the play a “tour de force” that is “hugely political, deeply personal and incredibly smart.” The director views Heidi as an extension of Wasserstein’s own insecurities, her tendency to “stand on the periphery and see other people who seem to have it much more together than she feels on the inside.” Her struggles, MacKinnon said, are very relevant today, as the runaway popularity of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” which asks if women can be both high achieving and personally fulfilled, attests.

Julie Salamon wrote a bestselling biography of Wasserstein, “Wendy and the Lost Boys” (Penguin Books, 2011). She noted that while Heidi is not Jewish, a central relationship in the play is between Heidi and a Jewish magazine editor, “Scoop” Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs). And she told The Jewish Week that “The Heidi Chronicles” articulates, most explicitly in a climactic monologue delivered by Heidi about getting depressed listening to the other women in a gym locker room, a “classic Jewish feeling,” one of a simultaneous “sense of superiority and inferiority toward others — a Chosen People mentality combined with a history of being discriminated against.”

Wasserstein’s heirs in contemporary culture, Salamon observed, are cable sitcom writers and actresses like Lena Dunham from “Girls” and the team of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer from “Broad City”— all three of whom are “smart, funny, awkward, New York Jewish women.” If Wasserstein, who died in 2006, were alive today, Salamon reflected, she “might be likewise writing for television.” However, Wasserstein was also “very self-protective and insecure about her looks — she might not have been willing to expose herself as physically and personally as they do.”

“The Heidi Chronicles” is running at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $40-$189, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.

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