by Gina Gionfriddo
THE day after my new play, “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” began previews Off Broadway I received a Facebook message from Wendy Wasserstein’s former assistant, a fellow playwright named Jenny Lyn Bader. Jenny had been in our first audience and wanted to tell me how much she had enjoyed the play. She said she wished Wendy were here to see me “taking up where ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ left off.”
Wasserstein’s “Heidi Chronicles” had its premiere in 1988 at Playwrights Horizons, the same theater where my play opens on Tuesday. It was a huge hit that moved to Broadway and earned its author a Tony and a Pulitzer. Wasserstein died in 2006.
I did not set out to rewrite “Heidi” or to talk back to “Heidi,” but no one is ever going to believe that. Both plays depict a female academic just over 40 with a successful career as an author. Both women, Wasserstein’s Heidi and my Cathy, regard their personal lives as lacking (neither has a romantic partner or children) and find themselves re-examining the feminist movement to sort out how they could have come so far and still wound up unsatisfied. Both women mourn the loss of a relationship they perceive to be a casualty of their ambitions. (It’s not just perception, actually; each play contains a scene in which the man in question confirms our heroine’s fears.) And both plays force our fortysomething doubters to confront bold, confident women in their early 20s who believe they have figured out how to have it all by observing the older women’s mistakes.
Is there such a thing as inadvertent homage? I accept that my play is a homage to “The Heidi Chronicles,” but I swear I didn’t mean it to be. When I start to write, I like to read a bunch of plays that are in the same ballpark subject-wise. I read plays about marriage when I was starting “Becky Shaw,” and I read plays about academics when I started “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” I read “Educating Rita,” “Butley,” “Collected Stories” and “Wit,” but I did not revisit “The Heidi Chronicles.” So how did this happen?
Well, “Heidi” and I have a history.
I saw the play on Broadway with my roommate when we were juniors at Barnard College. When the lights came up after the curtain call, I thought, “I have to walk out of the theater now, but I feel as if I should be mopped off the floor.” The play devastated me. Heidi’s monologue about feeling too sad to exercise alongside the shiny, happy women in the locker room at the gym made me cry. When I got back to my dorm I called my mother and told her she had to come to New York immediately to see it. She did, and, like my roommate, she appreciated the play but wasn’t wrecked by it as I was.
After hearing from Jenny I decided to reread “The Heidi Chronicles.” I kept thinking about her remark about taking up where “Heidi” left off. That’s true, chronologically; Wasserstein’s play ends in 1989 and mine begins in 2012, but our female protagonists have virtually identical complaints. What conclusions, if any, are to be drawn from that?
Rereading “The Heidi Chronicles” at 42 I’m not sure what to make of my intensely emotional response to it at the age of 20. The play is full of twentysomething women with strategies to bypass Heidi’s fate. Why didn’t I ally myself with them and skip off for post-theater dessert feeling superior? Why, at 20, did I locate myself on that stage as the middle-age baby boomer Heidi Holland?
One possibility, I think, is that some of the reasons for Heidi’s unhappiness are not age-specific or era-specific as much as they are gender-specific and the product of a certain temperament that Wasserstein and I share: call it melancholic, call it artistic, call it the thing that makes you feel gray next to the bouncy people at your gym.
Or maybe our protagonists’ plights are not essentially female or melancholic as much as they are postfeminist. That would be the hardest explanation to swallow, I think. It would mean that whether you’re a woman 20 years past the feminist movement or 40, the same issues between men and women remain unresolved. For both our characters career building proved incompatible with marriage.
I wish Wasserstein were here to weigh in on all this. I wonder if she would be bummed out. We were supposed to have resolved all of this, right?
The last scene of “The Heidi Chronicles” seems to articulate this hope. We learn that Heidi has adopted a baby daughter. She’s become what we now call an S.M.C. — a single mother by choice. The play’s final image is of Heidi rocking her baby in an empty white room. She has just moved into a new apartment. The walls are freshly painted, and none of the furniture has arrived. The stage picture says clean slate, no baggage. We end on a note of sweet optimism; Heidi hopes that her daughter will have an easier path than hers.
Eleven years after she chose single motherhood for Heidi, Wasserstein chose it for herself. In 1999 she gave birth to a daughter, conceived via a donor Wasserstein knew but never publicly named.
A funny thing happened when we were casting “Rapture.” This is back when it truly, if totally improbably, had not occurred to me that I’d written a play in dialogue with “The Heidi Chronicles.” I had a phone call with the actress Amy Brenneman. We were wooing her to play the lead role (lucky for us, she ultimately agreed), and she had questions for me about the ending. Amy didn’t want the play to have an “arc of despair. ”
I agreed that it shouldn’t. I told her I was open to tinkering with the conclusion, but that I didn’t want “a ‘Heidi Chronicles’ ending.” I’ve always been a little bit critical of Wasserstein’s choice to end her play with a baby. Heidi never expresses a yearning for children, then suddenly shows up a blissed-out Madonna in the final scene.
I think this is a valid criticism of the play, but it’s more than a little problematic for me to be making it. I was arguing a “No ‘Heidi Chronicles’ ending” to Ms. Brenneman while my own little “ ‘Heidi Chronicles’ ending” waited with her baby sitter in the next room. I gave birth to a donor-conceived daughter, Ava, in October, and she is wonderful.
I did not write a homage to “The Heidi Chronicles,” and I do not endorse that play’s ending. But I have a play and a baby that suggest otherwise.
Why a baby for me but not for my character? Partly because I subscribe to Wordsworth’s belief that poetry comes from “emotions recollected in tranquillity.” I may have a good play in me about becoming a mother, but the time to access that play was not the year I was struggling to conceive. Also: I know an awful lot of women who are sad for the reasons Heidi and Cathy are sad and who don’t hunger for a baby. It felt more optimistic to leave my heroine in the romantic trenches, still swinging rather than choosing (for the moment at least) motherhood.
If Wendy Wasserstein could see my play and have a drink with me afterward (and how much would I love that?), I would want to talk to her about single motherhood. The choice felt very unexpected and bold when Heidi made it in 1988. It still felt, to me, bold and unexpected when Wendy did it in 1999. By the time I did it in 2011 Hollywood had churned out two romantic comedies, “The Switch” and “The Back-Up Plan,” about single women having babies alone. This, I think, is a pretty big deal. Hollywood rom-coms don’t stake out new territory. Self-chosen single motherhood had become pretty much mainstream.
My question for Wasserstein would be: Is this good news or bad news? I mean, I love that my choice has been so warmly received and with so little fanfare. My brother told a teenage waitress he works with about how I made him an uncle; her response was, “My friend Jake is a donor kid.” He said she barely looked up from her side work. He called me, incredulous and excited, and said, “Ava’s going to go to school with other kids like her.”
The mother in me is thrilled about this. The romantic in me isn’t so sure. I would prefer to be an ecstatic aberration, rather than the new normal. I don’t think the world Heidi dreams for her daughter as the curtain falls is a world in which women choosing single motherhood is so common that no one bats an eye. It’s not the dream that closes my play either.
The dream, then and now, postfeminist and post-postfeminist (or whatever we choose to call this moment) is still simple and still incredibly hard: How do men and women figure out how to negotiate their equality better? As Cathy in “Rapture” advises a female student in the throes of love and ambition, “My middle-aged observation is that, in a relationship between two equals, you can’t both go first.”
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” at Playwrights Horizons
Gina Gionfriddo is the author of six plays, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Becky Shaw.”