An American Daughter

Organic Theater Company

By Adam Langer

At the close of Tom Stop-pard’s classic 1984 comedy The Real Thing, the playwright’s alter ego, Henry, a philandering writer, comes to terms with the infidelities of his lover. Accepting the fact that successful relationships are often based on compromises, he’s smitten by a new sense of romance and cranks up one of his favorite tunes, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” In Wendy Wasserstein’s 1997 comedy An American Daughter, surgeon general nominee Lyssa Dent Hughes refuses to accept the erotic escapades of her blowhard academic husband, Walter. After she’s disposed of him for the evening, she turns to the stereo and clicks off “I Get Around,” by his favorites the Beach Boys, and plays a classical number, one Walter and Henry alike would undoubtedly loathe. Then she goes to her desk and gets down to work.

Any resemblance between these two scenes can hardly be coincidental. Among the many topics on Wasserstein’s agenda is her direct challenge to Stoppard’s somewhat right-wing and elitist worldview in The Real Thing: he discounts the political in favor of the personal, suggesting that those who proclaim their political opinions are intellectually and morally suspect, adding that “public postures have the configuration of private derangement.” The somewhat left-of-center, Pulitzer-winning Wasserstein, whose views in this play occupy the middle ground between National Public Radio and Al Gore, doesn’t make such distinctions. For her the personal is political: the rotting moral core of Lyssa Hughes’s seemingly blossoming family parallels the nation’s corruption, as scandal-mongering, shamelessly self-promoting journalists and a vacuous, easily led populace conspire to sacrifice the good of the country to a lurid fascination with gossip.

What’s troubling about An American Daughter is that the personal troubles of Hughes’s family and friends carry not equal but greater dramatic weight than the problems of the American media and political establishment. Though not particularly gripping, the tryst between Walter and a neo-feminist author and the futile struggles of Hughes’s best friend to get pregnant command more attention than the interviews and speeches on health care Hughes gives in her bid for the surgeon general’s post. It may be that the personal is political, but in Wasserstein’s case the political is exceedingly dull. It makes one wonder whether Stoppard might be right after all, at least when he maintains that politics is sadly unliterary.

The remarkable thing here–given that An American Daughter is barely a year old and that the current political situation is ripe for satire–is how toothless and dated Wasserstein’s play seems, a perfect time capsule of the 1992 presidential campaign and the first 100 days of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Wasserstein’s heroine is about 80 percent Hillary Clinton and 10 percent each Joycelyn Elders and Lani Guinier. Lyssa Hughes (played with wonderful composure by Judy Blue) epitomizes the hardworking, ultrasuccessful 90s mom who keeps her public and private lives together despite her husband’s foibles, then gets herself in trouble: Hughes admits that she once failed to respond to a call for jury duty and also makes a smart-ass remark to a reporter about her mother’s cooking–like Hillary’s infamous cookie-baking comment, her throwaway line turns middle America against her.

This setup, if not exactly compelling, is certainly plausible, and so are the damage-control efforts put into effect by Hughes, her husband, her father (a U.S. senator), and their friends and acquaintances. But Wasserstein’s critique of our television-drunk nation, obsessed with inconsequential personal details, loses a lot of its bite because of the style in which she’s written it. The idea of a perfectly qualified woman losing out on a job because of a ridiculous media frenzy is as absurd as it is plausible, but Wasserstein’s high-gloss script seems perfectly suited to the very medium she’s criticizing.

The thing about politics in the 90s is that it’s generally suited not to the stage but to television. Even the current Washington scandal, with its carefully worded statements and staged photo ops and soulless speeches, might make a decent movie of the week or Jerry Springer episode, but it wouldn’t make for much more than a passable play. The story has no depth or resonance. Some tawdry details emerge, but once they’ve been absorbed it’s time to flip channels and watch the equally compelling drama of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Rather than fight the inherent monotony of sound-bite politics, An American Daughter succumbs to it. Unlike playwright Tony Kushner, who elevates politics into poetry, or Paddy Chayefsky in Network and even Warren Beatty in Bulworth, who turn rage into compelling agitprop, Wasserstein remains banal. Most of her play has a snappy, sitcom quality that makes it seem, at best, a particularly well structured and intelligent episode of Murphy Brown. Even the wacky characters surrounding Hughes seem to have come from some Norman Lear-James L. Brooks universe. They aren’t broad enough to be satirical cartoons, but they’re not real enough to be fully credible either. Hughes’s best friend, Judith B. Kaufman, is an African-American Jewish professor of medicine who’s so upscale she tosses crumbs of Starbucks muffins into the Potomac to represent her sins during Tashlich, a Jewish commemoration of sins and regrets. Though Judith has the play’s wittiest lines and Ora Jones does a fine job of fleshing her out, the character’s self-deprecating wisecracks are decidedly made-for-TV. Hughes’s other friend, Morrow McCarthy, is a caustic screenwriter whose sexual preference would seem to run counter to his political preference for Pat Buchanan. Even the names of the supporting characters–TV news reporter Timber Tucker, writer Quincy Quince–place Wasserstein’s play in the realm of the small screen.

The most heartfelt moments in An American Daughter likewise remain uncomfortably close to TV-land. In one rather amusing scene, Wasserstein parodies the feel-good family-values images public figures adopt to make themselves palatable to the media and the American mainstream. As Hughes faces the glare of the television lights, she looks the part of the perfect suburban homemaker, with a Hillary headband, her husband’s arm around her, and her father looking on adoringly. In one of the key moments of the play, Hughes then commits political suicide, telling the American public what she really thinks of all the BS about the importance of family. Yet the language she uses, talking about how she can “make a difference in the world,” is not far removed from the TV-speak Wasserstein has just satirized. And neither Wasserstein’s snappy characters nor her uncontroversial political wish list (affordable universal health care, a woman’s right to choose, equal opportunities) outweighs this inherent contradiction. Recalling Elaine May’s jarringly apolitical script for the yawner film Primary Colors, Wasserstein’s play is the deadliest sort of political satire, one that it’s hard to imagine will offend anyone.

Director Ina Marlowe employs a particularly fine cast in this Chicago-premiere production by the Organic Theater Company, notably Jones, Blue, and Rob Riley and Lynnette Gaza as Hughes’s blue-blooded dad and stepmom. But Marlowe’s stiff staging, in which the actors often declaim their mundane dialogue in the manner of Julius Caesar addressing the senate, further erodes any potential subtlety in the script. Despite the production’s slick performances and the glib writing, this is a play that, to borrow a phrase from Wasserstein’s adversary Stoppard, announces “every stale revelation of the newly enlightened like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Dan Rest.