The Heidi Chronicles will begin performances tonight at the Music Box Theatre! Tickets are available here. The production will star Golden Globe-winner and six-time Emmy Award-nominee Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men,” “Top of the Lake,” Speed-the-Plow), Emmy Award-nominee Jason Biggs (“Orange Is The New Black,” American Pie), Tony Award-nominee Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), and Tracee Chimo (Lips Together, Teeth Apart, “Orange Is The New Black,” Bad Jews).
Jan Balakian covers The Heidi Chronicles in her book Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein. In honor of the show’s opening night, here’s an excerpt exploring The Heidi Chronicles:
The Heidi Chronicles dramatizes a romantic, witty, unmarried art history professor at Columbia University, Heidi Holland, approaching middle age and becoming disillusioned with the collapse of the idealism that shaped the sixties. Spanning twenty-three years, the play begins with Heidi’s slide lecture about the neglect of women artists and then travels back to a 1965 Chicago high school dance, where she meets the lifelong friends whose feminist values fluctuate. In college, Heidi and her friends become passionate feminists and liberals: we see them at a 1968 Eugene McCarthy rally in New Hampshire, a 1970 Ann Arbor consciousness-raising session, and a 1974 protest for women artists at the Art Institute of Chicago.
While Heidi remains committed to the ideals of feminism, her friends become swept away by the materialism and narcissism of the Reagan eighties, leading the vacuous lives they once denounced. Heidi feels stranded. At her 1986 high school alumni luncheon, the climax of the play, she confesses her feelings of abandonment and her disappointment with her peers: “I thought the point was we were all in this together.” By the end of the play in 1989, however, Heidi feels a little less alone and depressed in her New York apartment, having adopted a daughter as a single parent. She hopes that her daughter will feel the confidence and dignity that were the aims of the women’s movement.
This play grew out of Wasserstein’s strong feminist sentiments: “I wrote this play because I had this image of a woman standing up at a women’s meeting saying, ‘I’ve never been so unhappy in my life. . . .’ The more angry it made me that these feelings weren’t being expressed, the more anger I put into that play.” A comedy of manners, satirically depicting the concerns and conventions of a group of yuppies and a pair of witty lovers – Scoop and Heidi – the play exposes the marginalization of women artists, sexism in general, women’s loss of identity, an unromantic view of marriage, and the lost idealism of the second wave of feminism that began in the early sixties.
Unlike the first wave of feminism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which focused on officially mandated inequalities, like gaining women’s suffrage, the second wave encouraged women to understand the psychological implications of sexist stereotypes and opened the eyes of American women to careers and achievement, which they had lost in post-World War II America.
From the start, Heidi, standing in a lecture hall showing slides of paintings, addresses the neglect of women artists. She then points out the difference between the male and female sensibility: “Clara Peeters used more geometry and less detail than her mail peers.” This aesthetic difference becomes a metaphor for gender conflict throughout the play. Although female characters are frustrated that they derive their identities from men, they frantically seek boyfriends. Heidi treats this problem with humor as she segues from the art history lecture back to a 1965 high school dance: “This painting has always reminded me of one of those horrible high school dances. And you sort of want to dance, and you sort of want to go home, and you sort of don’t know what you want. So you hang around, a fading rose in an exquisitely detailed dress, waiting to see what might happen.”
During the 1965 dance, we hear the “The Shoop Shoop Song,” whose lyrics answered the question of anxious young American women: “How can I tell if he loves me so?” with “It’s in his kiss.” The song became a hit with Betty Everett’s 1963 album It’s in His Kiss. During this song, Heidi declines the All-American Chris Boxer’s invitation to dance the “Hully Gully” – a sixties line dance consisting of a series of quick steps called out by the MC. Her friend Susan, however, advises her on how to get a guy to dance with her: “Don’t look desperate. Men don’t dance with desperate women.” Eyeing a Bobby Kennedy lookalike, who is “twisting and smoking” in his “vest, blue jeans, tweed jacket and Wee-juns,” Susan quickly unbuttons her sweater, rolls up her skirt, and pulls a necklace out of her purse. She cautions Heidi, “. . . you’re going to get really messed up unless you learn to take men seriously,” and “The worst thing you can do is cluster. ‘Cause then it looks like you just wanna hang around with your girlfriend.”
Heidi is quick to point out that men are not such a big deal, that the only difference between men and women is biology: “. . . he can twist and smoke at the same time and we can get out of gym with an excuse called ‘I have my monthly.'” As Peter Patrone approaches Heidi, who is now reading a book, the Rolling Stones’ 1965 song “Play with Fire” plays, suggesting that Heidi is playing with fire by choosing not to be the representative 1965 girl. In another sense, playing with Peter Patrone is also “playing with fire”; although he may be Heidi’s soul mate, he is unattainable, because, we later find out, he is gay. Peter and Heidi enact their own melodrama, pretending they are star-crossed lovers on a Queen Mary cruise. Their meta-drama ironizes the 1965 high school dance; the sanitarium replaces the church wedding (Heidi declines Peter’s proposal, saying she covets her independence), and Peter and Heidi never kiss.