Born 18 October 1950, Brooklyn, New York.
Daughter of Morris W. and Lola Schleifer Wasserstein.
The plays that Wendy Wasserstein has written since the late 1970s capture with humor the hope and the despair, the joy and the anguish of her generation of well-educated, successful upper-middle-class women whose lives have defined, and been defined by, the progress of the women's movement in America during the last few decades of the 20th century. The women of Wasserstein's plays have ridden the exhilarating, yet sometimes disorienting, wave of the women's movement through college in the 1960s and 1970s, only to come crashing ashore in the 1980s to find the beckoning sands of professional success and personal fulfillment made rocky by the demands of relationships, family, and the "biological clock."
Wasserstein was raised in New York City, the youngest of four children of Jewish immigrant parents who prospered in the United States. She was educated at the Calhoun School (an exclusive Manhattan private school for girls), Mount Holyoke College (B.A., 1971), City College of New York (M.A., 1973), and the Yale School of Drama (M.E.A., 1976). For most of her life since Yale, she has lived in New York City in a world focused on the theater.
As a child, Wasserstein was introduced to dance and theater (she was especially fond of musicals) by her mother and wrote musical revues at the Calhoun School. While an undergraduate, she took a summer playwriting course at Smith College and performed in campus theatrical productions. After she graduated from Mount Holyoke, but before she enrolled at Yale, in 1973 her play Any Woman Can't was produced off-Broadway by Play-wrights Horizons.
While at Yale, Wasserstein collaborated on two musical works, Montpelier Pa-zazz and When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth. She wrote a one-act version of Uncommon Women and Others as her master's thesis, and after completing her M.F.A., she expanded this play into two acts. The revised version was produced initially at the 1977 National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and then a few months later, by the Phoenix Theatre Company, at the Marymount Manhattan Theatre. Uncommon Women and Others (1978) was Wasserstein's first successful play; receiving an Obie award, among others. It was followed in 1981 by Isn't It Romantic (published 1984), also produced by the Phoenix at the Marymount Manhattan Theatre; a revised version opened off-Broadway late in 1983.
Wasserstein's most important work to date, The Heidi Chronicles, opened at Play-wrights Horizons in New York in 1988; after three months, it moved to Broadway. This play "chronicles" the life of Heidi Holland from her adolescence in the 1960s to her adulthood in the 1980s. Heidi voices disillusionment with the women's movement ("I thought the point was that we were all in this together"), yet in her commitment to rearing her adopted daughter (she remains unmarried), she makes an active statement of hope for the future.
The Heidi Chronicles received the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony award as best new play of the year in 1989, as well as "best play" awards from the New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk; Wasserstein also received the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 1988 Hull-Warriner Award from the Dramatists Guild. While her work has been criticized by some for lack of depth, it has been praised by many critics for its witty dialogue and honest insights into one particular contemporary social milieu.
Wasserstein has also written a one-act play, Tender Offer, produced in 1983, and collaborated on a musical, Miami, as yet (1993) unproduced. She has written several scripts for television, including an adaptation of the John Cheever story "The Sorrows of Gin" for public television; she was also a regular contributor to the CBS series Comedy Zone in 1984-85. She coauthored with Christopher Durang the screenplay The House of Husbands and wrote Maids in America for Steven Spielberg (both still unproduces), and adapted Stephen McCauley's novel The Object of My Affection for Twentieth Century-Fox. She also adapted her own Uncommon Women for television (broadcast on PBS in 1978 and rebroadcast in 1991), and wrote a screenplay for Isn't It Romantic (unproduced).
In 1991 Wasserstein published Bachelor Girls, a collection of her personal essays on contemporary women's lives; many critics found these nonfictional prose writings less compelling than her dramatic work. Wasserstein has received several fellowships and grants, including a 1983 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 1984 NEA grant for playwriting.
Wasserstein's play The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), about the conflicts between Jewish ethnic/religious identity and cultural assimilation in the lives of three sisters, opened off-Broadway to favorable reviews. It moved to Broadway in early 1993 and won a Tony for Madeline Kahn.
In October 1995, The Heidi Chronicles was brought to television by the Turner network, starring Jamie Lee Curtis as the heroine. Some asked why make the award-winning play into a movie, and Wasserstein responded, "It would have killed me if Heidi never became a movie." She said she was going to bring it to public television, but there was no money until Curtis became interested and Turner picked it up. The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein explains, is "a play by a woman about women running on Broadway and commercially viable." Thus she opened the door for other women to do the same, to be funny, yet taken seriously. And she opened the door for other women playwrights to be brought to television.
The story, originally written as a reaction to Wasserstein's own disillusions, follows the flashbacks of a woman who is very successful yet feels stuck by the decisions she's made. Although when it was released on television there were fears that audiences would not relate to Heidi's character, women of today are relating to the recurring theme of "What if…?"
Wasserstein more recent play, An American Daughter, which she calls "a bitter and angry play" opened in Seattle in the spring of 1996 and in New York that fall.
The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays (1991). Pamela's First Musical (1996).
Betsko, K., and R. Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (1987). Carlson, S. L., "Comic Textures and Female Communities 1937 and 1977: Clare Boothe and Wendy Wasserstein," in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon (1990). Keyssar, H., Feminist Theatre (1984). Raymond, M. G., "Chronicling Our Selves: Hermeneutical Consciousness in Four Plays by Marsha Norman, Caryl Churchill, and Wendy Wasserstein" (thesis, 1998).
CB (July 1989). CA (1987, 1989, 1990). CLC (1990). Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television (1986). Feminist Companion to Literature in English (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995). National Playwrights Directory (1981). WWAW (1984).
Modern Drama (Dec. 1984). Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal (1988, interview).
—STEVEN F. BLOOM,
UPDATED BY DEVRA M. SLADICS