When The Heidi Chronicles first opened on Broadway, seven years after the publication of long-time Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown’s feminist self-help book Having It All, it tackled head-on the issues facing women at the time. The late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, a fierce “chronicler” of women’s stories in particular, had already established herself as a fine, funny writer with her breakthrough play, Uncommon Women and Others, the story of a group of friends at Mount Holyoke College, but it was Heidi that cemented her place in theatre history, winning her the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
At the time, Heidi hit a nerve for baby boomers struggling to find their way within the societal conventions of the time. Art historian Heidi Holland, played in the current Broadway revival at the Music Box Theatre by Elisabeth Moss (and by Joan Allen in the original production), is our heroine. As the play begins, she’s giving a lecture on women in art history to a group of students, attempting to dissect the reasons why women who were just as prolific (if not more so) as men from the same time period have tended to fade into the background while male artists are held up as trailblazers.
From her lecture, we flash back to Heidi’s college days and her social and political activism in the 60s and 70s. Though Heidi is the focal point of the play, her attentions oscillate between the two men in her life — the haughty Scoop Rosenbaum, whom she meets while campaigning for Eugene McCarthy — and gay pediatrician Peter Patrone, who remains a lifelong friend after she meets him at a school dance.
Wasserstein’s play accomplishes the rare feat of reveling in the warmth of its characters while exploring with cutting, occasionally acerbic wit their intrinsic flaws. Heidi may want to have it all, but she quickly finds that that’s easier said than done. That juxtaposition ultimately serves as the backbone of the play. It’s a shame then, given the depth of the piece, that Pam MacKinnon’s middle-of-the-road production ultimately misses the mark.
As we vault through the years of Heidi’s life, sound designer Jill BC Du Boff and projection designer Peter Nigrini set the scene with blaring musical selections from the time (Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” in the 60s, Fleetwood Mac in the 70s, etc.) set against the backdrop of videos and images meant to evoke the time period (protest footage, newspaper headlines, etc.). Instead of setting the scene however, too often these transitions threaten to set the play, which remains just about as relevant as it was in the late 80s, dangerously off course into Period Play territory.
Though Bryce Pinkham’s performance as Peter is full of warmth and humor, Moss as Heidi is merely serviceable. Her performance, though no embarrassment, can’t quite capture the full range of emotions Heidi’s character is tasked with throughout the play as Wasserstein charts her protagonist’s journey from budding feminist to have-it-all career woman, particularly when it comes time to explore the subject of marriage and children.
Moss, who made her Broadway debut in the supporting role of Karen in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow opposite Jeremy Piven, seems still to be coming into her own on stage. While her delivery here is more natural than in Speed-the-Plow, one can’t help but imagine what a rangier actress could have done with a part this meaty. In the neo-feminist age of Lena Dunham’s Girls and Emma Watson’s He For She campaign, on the heels of Patricia Arquette’s rousing Oscar speech and on the (possible) verge of another high-profile run for president for Hillary Clinton, Heidi deserves better representation on Broadway.
Though Wasserstein’s text still manages to impress in this current Broadway production, its luster is somewhat diminished by the limitations of its cast. American Pie alum Jason Biggs is likable if undistinguished as Scoop, the entitled meddler who almost walks away with Heidi’s heart. In fact, it’s Tracee Chimo’s performance in four supporting roles (most memorably women’s group member Fran) that stands out as the most in tune with the barbed edges of Wasserstein’s play, which relies on top-notch performers to land its funniest blink-and-you’ll-miss-them lines. In the absence, especially, of a strong Heidi to anchor this production, it’s up to supporting players like Pinkham and Chimo to pick up the slack, which they do ably. It’s a shame, though, that Heidi’s own Chronicles end up falling by the wayside as a result.