Keep the Faith

Art historian Heidi Holland (Elisabeth Moss) is a true believer.  Worse, she is “that unfortunate contradiction in terms: a serous good person.”  This means, among other things, that she is a feminist who is skeptical of the radical and divisive feminist politics in the ‘seventies but who maintains her integrity as she watches those same radicals shave their legs and sell out in the ‘eighties.  She allows a man, Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs), to account for what she thinks of herself, but she does not write Scoop off because he’s selfish and narcissistic.  Even after they break up and Scoop marries a Southern Jewish belle, Lisa Friedlander (Leighton Bryan), the two remain important to each other.  As Heidi grows distant from her childhood companion Susan Johnston (Ali Ahn), she is left only with Scoop and the man who initially seemed like the “better choice,” Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham), a gay pediatrician whose own struggle for civil rights is beset by all sorts of challenges to its legitimacy.  Playwright Wendy Wasserstein seems to suggest that, in contradiction to the popular adage, we choose neither our friends nor our family, and as we grow older, the distinction between the two becomes less clear.

If The Big Chill was about what happened to boomers who grew up as soon as it became convenient, The Heidi Chronicles is about one who didn’t, about one who continued to sacrifice happiness for her principles.  It is a powerful and entertaining play, skillfully spanning decades without reducing them to clichés and never feeling trapped in its own (Wasserstein wrote it in 1988), a remarkable feat when we consider how quickly identity politics can date.

Ms. Moss is terrific.  Her sharp mousiness and her unassuming idealism often quietly overpower the other actors onstage.  Mr. Biggs, though cast against type—he didn’t exactly make his career playing overconfident womanizers—is also very good.  When he cries, “Oh God, I’m so unhappy!” on his wedding night, there seems to be a passive masochism in his acceptance of the world as it is.  The pairing of these two actors is especially effective because they highlight that Heidi and Scoop both seem to know the same things and feel the same way; Scoop is just resigned while Heidi never stops throwing punches, perhaps because the former has less to lose as an inheritor of the white patriarchy.  Unfortunately, Mr. Pinkham, who was easily the best part of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, fails to tone down his stagey, musical theater presence from that previous production, and his hamminess is often out of place here.  But Tracee Chimo, perhaps because she is playing a series of supporting characters rather than one at the center of the drama, is fabulously silly as a hairy-legged lesbian activist, a wine-swilling pregnant woman, and a vapid, all-smiles television host.  In fact, after this and Bad Jews she is quickly becoming one of the most memorable actors in New York theater.

It is odd when a play like The Heidi Chronicles, which, when it premiered, was both a period piece and an account of the present day, becomes simply a period piece.  But unlike, say, The Normal Heart, Wasserstein’s story about the emergence of a feminist voice in the ‘eighties is not drowned in its own contemporariness.  This is still a valuable work—perhaps because it is ultimately about Heidi and Scoop and Peter rather than a particular time or a particular movement—and it is heartening to see to such a strong and intelligent revival.

The Heidi Chronicles runs through May 3rd at the Music Box Theatre.  239 West 45th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 35 minutes.  One intermission.

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