National Jewish Theater


at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

When Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles opened off-Broadway almost three years ago, it triggered an avalanche of articles and reviews, most of them concerned with how successfully Wasserstein had critiqued the baby boom in general and the women’s movement in particular. Inevitably such articles revealed much more about the writer and the periodical in which the piece appeared than about the play. Walter Shapiro, for example, writing for Time magazine (a publication always eager to discredit the projects of radical youth) dubbed the play an “elegy for [Wasserstein’s] lost generation” and crowned the playwright a “chronicler of frayed feminism.” Moira Hodgson, writing for the Nation, complained that Wasserstein’s satire was “harmless,” “perfect for Broadway since there is nothing in it to offend deeply or shake up the house.”

So certain were these writers that Wasserstein meant her work to “ask hard questions about her generation” that they missed the play. True, those looking for evidence that things have not turned out as planned for this generation will find it in The Heidi Chronicles–as they will find it in almost any work of art or newspaper article that honestly reflects the anxieties and ambivalence of our age. Things never turn out as planned for any generation. But I think it cheapens the power of Wasserstein’s work, as revealed in Sheldon Patinkin’s intelligent, sensitive production currently playing at the National Jewish Theater, to consider The Heidi Chronicles merely an essay in play form, discussing those favorite topics of life-style journalists: Whither feminism? And what’s hot, what’s not among the baby-boom generation.

As a meditation on feminism, The Heidi Chronicles achieves little more than Jane Wagner manages in one longish sketch in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In fact, Wasserstein makes a point of ridiculing those fond of making generational generalizations. Heidi’s verbally aggressive hip friend Scoop, publisher of the ultratrendy Boomer magazine, takes pride in the fact that he “stopped pastels in the nick of time.” Then there are the dim-witted pronouncements of a perky talk-show host, April Lambert: “The baby-boom generation, are they all grown-up now? Well, they’re rich, powerful, famous, and even parents.”

The Heidi Chronicles succeeds not because it’s full of glib answers to the media’s snappy questions but because Wasserstein has created in Heidi an interesting, original character.

Still, more than one critic has complained that Heidi remains elusive–that throughout her story she is distant, emotionally removed, an observer of the passing scene rather than a fully engaged participant. Measured against the other characters–especially her two male friends, the arrogant journalist-turned-lawyer-turned-publisher Scoop Rosenbaum and the sharp-tongued pediatrician Peter Patrone–Heidi seems passive, a quality emphasized in Janice St. John’s quiet, understated interpretation. In St. John’s hands, Heidi always maintains an ironic distance from events.

I don’t believe this is a flaw, however–either in Wasserstein’s script or in St. John’s performance. In fact it’s one of the qualities that make Heidi endearing. Those who claim that the play has no dramatic center, because Heidi is too quiet and reflective, labor under the misconception that protagonists must make big, active, obvious choices. These critics don’t know how to listen to Heidi. Nor do they understand that there are lots of people out there, of both sexes, who deal with life in the same removed, self-ironic manner. Not all of us can be like Peter (ably played by Si Osborne), voted the “leading pediatrician in New York under 40,” or like chronic overachiever and world-class schmuck Scoop (played with superb comic timing by Jeff Ginsberg).

Most of us are not Macbeth, nor will we ever be. And for us there’s Heidi Holland, whose most heroic act throughout the 11 scenes chronicling the 24 years between 1965 and 1989 is that unlike her friend Susan, who changes identities the way the rest of us change socks, she remains true to herself through everything.

Storyteller Joseph Daniel Sobol may not have one-tenth the polish of the performers in The Heidi Chronicles, but his onstage persona in Voids of Passage: Puberty Rites of the 60’s comes across as every bit as honest, true, and endearing as St. John’s Heidi. Of course, when you’re the only person onstage, as Sobol is for this 90-minute one-man show (there is a ten-minute break), you’d better be charming. Otherwise your time onstage is going to be sheer agony, for you and your audience.

If Voids of Passage is any indication, I doubt Sobol has ever given an agony-inducing performance. This lively performer, whose neatly trimmed beard, dark corduroy jeans, red plaid flannel shirt, and gentle, cultivated voice make him look and sound more like a hip high school English teacher than a theater artist, spins a tale so utterly absorbing the show could have been twice as long and I wouldn’t have complained. It helps that Sobol’s two stories–one about a “secret” boys-only club Sobol started in the sixth grade, the other about his misadventures at a nearly bankrupt summer camp in the Florida Keys–are autobiographical, and that Sheffield’s School Street Cafe is such an intimate performing space. Sobol was literally able to make eye contact with every member of the audience.

In a program note Sobol says he’s developed his technique as a monologuist by collecting stories and songs in Appalachia, Ireland, and New Orleans. But where he learned his craft matters less than his onstage charisma and gifts as a storyteller. He has a clever way of turning the everyday details of his early adolescence–the lists of secret agents he admired (James Bond, Napoleon Solo, Emma Peel), the fact that he and his friends anxiously believed puberty to be a conspiracy not unlike the one in Invasion of the Body Snatchers–into humorous, evocative tales.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.