Any Woman Can’t, pr. 1973
Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz, pr. 1974
When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, pr. 1975 (with Christopher Durang)
Uncommon Women and Others, pr. 1975 (one act), pr. 1977 (two acts)
Isn’t It Romantic, pr. 1981, revised pr. 1983
Tender Offer, pr. 1983 (one act)
The Man in a Case, pr., pb. 1986 (one act; adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story)
Miami, pr. 1986 (musical)
The Heidi Chronicles, pr., pb. 1988
The Heidi Chronicles, and Other Plays, pb. 1990
The Sisters Rosensweig, pr. 1992
An American Daughter, pr. 1997
Waiting for Philip Glass, pr., pb. 1998 (inspired by William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94)
The Festival of Regrets, pr. 1999 (libretto)
Old Money, pr. 2000
Seven One-Act Plays, pb. 2000
Bachelor Girls, 1990
Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties, 2001
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
Pamela’s First Musical, 1996
The Object of My Affection, 1998 (adaptation of Stephen McCauley’s novel)
The Sorrows of Gin, 1979 (from the story by John Cheever)
“Drive,” She Said, 1984
The Heidi Chronicles, 1995 (adaptation of her play)
An American Daughter, 2000 (adaptation of her play)
Wendy Wasserstein (WAHS-ur-steen) was the youngest of the five children of Morris W. Wasserstein, a textile manufacturer, and Lola Scheifer Wasserstein, an amateur dancer. When she was thirteen her family moved to the East Side of Manhattan. There she attended the Calhoun School, where she wrote the school’s musical revue for the mother/daughter luncheons. At Mount Holyoke College she studied to be a congressional intern. Her interest in theater was sparked by a summer playwriting course at Smith College and by her experiences at Amherst College, where she spent her junior year. Wasserstein earned her B.A. in history from Mount Holyoke, and thereafter her M.A. in creative writing from City University of New York. In 1973 her play “Any Woman Can’t,” a satire about a woman whose failure as a tap dancer leads her to marry an egotistical sexist, was produced Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons.
In 1973 Wasserstein entered the Yale Drama School, and one year later her play Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz, a cartoonish caricature of college life focusing on the male domination of women, was first produced. She collaborated with Christopher Durang on When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, a parody of beauty contests, which was produced at the Yale Cabaret Theater. These early plays about the suppression of women display an absurdist humor that depends on comic caricatures and a broad use of irony.
In her one-act thesis production at Yale, Uncommon Women and Others, her style moved closer to realism. She subsequently expanded the play into a full-length comedy that was eventually produced Off-Broadway by the Phoenix Theater on November 21, 1977. The drama opens on a reunion between five women and then flashes back six years to their senior year in college. The play abounds in contrasts, among them that between the women’s present condition and their past expectations. After sipping sherry and folding their napkins at Mrs. Plumm’s gatherings the women leave and discuss masturbation and the possibilities of male menstruation. Contrasts are also reflected in the women’s inner turmoil. At times all of them are self-assured, but Wasserstein also shows one woman wishing she were more like the others. In Uncommon Women and Others Wasserstein brings to the drama a community of women who can share their emotions, express their insecurities, and play out their fantasies together as they face an uncertain future. Featuring Meryl Streep and Swoosie Kurtz, the play appeared on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television in 1978, and critics began to hail Wasserstein as a promising new playwright.
After adapting John Cheever’s short story “The Sorrows of Gin” for a television production on PBS, Wasserstein’s next play, Isn’t It Romantic, opened Off-Broadway in 1981. Many critics faulted the play for being loosely constructed and full of unnecessary jokes; after seven revisions, the work was reopened at Playwrights Horizons on December 15, 1983, and this time it won critical acclaim as well as achieving box-office success, running to 733 performances.
In 1983 Wasserstein’s one-act play Tender Offer, which concerns a father who misses his daughter’s dance recital, was produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre. In 1986 her one-act adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Man in a Case” was produced by the Acting Company. She rocketed back into national prominence on December 11, 1988 with The Heidi Chronicles, the play that established her as a noted playwright as well as a popular success. Moving in time from 1965 to 1989, a middle-aged art professor relives the hope and disillusionment of the women’s movement. The Heidi Chronicles is a dreamlike play filled with songs of a bygone era, recurring images, and relived moments, as the past is shown always encroaching into the present. Heidi is always aware not only of her personal history but also of the history of her generation caught in the sweep of social change, ever on the path of self-discovery. The Heidi Chronicles won a number of awards, including those of the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Outer Critics Circle, and the Drama Desk. The play also led to Wasserstein’s becoming the third woman in a decade to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the first woman to win a Tony Award for an original drama.
Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, which opened at Lincoln Center on October 22, 1992, focuses on three Jewish-American sisters who examine their lives and explore their future options during a birthday weekend in London. Although the play is set against the backdrop of social and political upheaval, the larger social world is kept at a distance as the characters struggle with their identity, examine their life choices, and try to seize a moment of happiness. Both a critical and box office success, the play moved to Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre and was nominated for a Tony Award.
Spanning more than twenty-five years of social change, Wasserstein’s plays depict a generation reflecting on its lost ideals and examining new possibilities. Her plays focus on character rather than plot, and they are thought-provoking without being preachy, comedic without sacrificing sentiment, and theatrical without losing believability. Even though her output was not extensive, with two critically acclaimed Broadway hits and a series of prestigious awards, Wasserstein established herself as a significant American playwright. Wasserstein was diagnosed with lymphoma and died in New York City at the age of 55.