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When it first opened on Broadway in 1988, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles felt almost revolutionary, a snapshot look at second-wave feminism and how far the movement had — and hadn’t — come since the bra-burning days of the 1960s. Nearly three decades on, Wasserstein’s Pulitzer-winning drama isn’t nearly as dated as it should be with its illumination of the perils facing a smart and headstrong woman as she navigates career, work-life-balance, biological clocks, and the tendency of men in her life of mansplain.
Indeed, there’s a scene in Pam McKinnon’s bracing, well-acted new revival (which opened tonight at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre) that underscores just how timely this play remains. Our heroine, the stubbornly single art historian Heidi Holland (Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss), finds herself on a TV panel wedged between her on-again-off-again lover, the ambitious magazine publisher Scoop Rosenbaum (American Pie alum Jason Biggs), and her longtime confidant, gay pediatrician Peter Patrone (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder‘s Bryce Pinkham). Even on questions about women “having it all” and ticking biological clocks, Heidi is interrupted by her testosterone-charged fellow panelists.
The casting of Moss is a stroke of genius. Heidi is like a younger, more well-bred cousin of Peggy Olson, the Bay Ridge-born secretary who’s risen to become an increasingly high-powered advertising exec over six and a half seasons on AMC’s Mad Men. And Moss, with her broad, open, porcelain face registering every slight, steps into Heidi’s period outfits (designed by Jessica Pabst to be just short of cartoonish) with remarkable poise and skill. She projects an everygal quality that is essential given how passive a character Heidi is for much of the show bearing her name. Though Heidi is known for her quick wit and occasional bursts of catty sarcasm, her default mode runs to fly-on-the-wall observation and stewing in silence. Even when she delivers a zinger about Scoop’s new Southern belle of a wife (Leighton Bryan) at his wedding reception, we can see her cringe that she may have gone too far.
For much of the play, though, Heidi and her choices take a back seat to the march-of-time pageant of Wasserstein’s somewhat clunky dramatic structure: brief scenes, beginning in the mid-’60s and set a few years apart, that are intended both to signpost the evolution of the women’s movement (and late-20th-century American history) as well as the progress of the main characters’ lives. Heidi’s pal Susan (the delightful spitfire Ali Ahn), for instance, goes from a man-chasing prep-school kid to a Supreme Court legal clerk to a lesbian on a women’s collective in Montana to a network TV bigwig.
The cast includes other stand outs. Bryce Pinkham exudes a sassy, scene-stealing charm as Peter, a prototype for the gay best friend that has become a staple of rom-coms about urban single gals. Tracee Chimo makes a comparably big impression in several smaller roles, including that vacuous TV interviewer who won’t let Heidi get a word in edgewise.
Faring less well is Jason Biggs in the challenging role of Scoop, a Mr. Big-like figure who woulda-coulda-shoulda been Heidi’s match but realizes, with almost uncharacteristic self-awareness, that he wants a female partner who will play a more traditional wifely role. Biggs has got the banter and the confidence and the bluster, but his scenes with Moss lack the romantic spark that would explain why each is the other’s one-that-got-away. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that two of Broadway’s previous Heidis — Joan Allen and Brooke Adams — wound up marrying their respective Scoops, Peter Friedman and Tony Shalhoub. Jenny Mollen, Biggs’ real-life wife since 2008, should be able to rest easily.)
MacKinnon’s direction is mostly unobtrusive, as is, uncharacteristically, John Lee Beatty’s set design (which relies on a turntable as well as lowered backdrops). But while the political and social issues that Wasserstein raised are still topical, it can be hard to connect with Heidi on an emotional level. The brevity of the scenes, and the seeding of pop culture references (to Eugene McCarthy or John Lennon’s slaying or Farrah Fawcett), can obscure the personal stake for our heroine — at least until her speech at her old girls’ school toward the very end, a dramatic 11 o’clock number that Moss tears into with raw emotional honesty. Suddenly, a show (and a character) that has relied so much on glib surfaces reveals its beating and vulnerable heart. And the effect is devastating. Grade: B+