Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning 1988 The Heidi Chronicles is back on Broadway in a flawed, but still fascinating production directed by Pam MacKinnon. Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men plays the title role. She’s joined by Jason Biggs (of the American Pie and American Wedding franchises) and Bryce Pinkham (Tony nominated for The Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder) as the most important men in her life.
The Heidi Chronicles follows Heidi Holland from her high school days in Chicago in 1965 through her college and post graduate years to her ascendance as an Art History expert, specializing in neglected female artists. The female friends she makes at college stay with her through the years, but it is sensitive high school wallflower Peter Patrone (Mr. Pinkham) who fascinates her and remains her closest friend. He comes out of the closet, becomes a pediatrician with a social conscience and provides a contrast to the over-bearing and over-confident Scoop Rosenbaum (Mr. Biggs) who woos and seduces Heidi at a political rally. Scoop becomes an uber-male-chauvinistic pig, eventually marrying a more pliable woman to help him in his law career.
We watch them all evolve, some for the better and some not so, following the feminist rulebook à la Wasserstein. Heidi’s “village” consists of smart, witty and pretty women with minds of their own. We watch them in their professional careers, marriages, childbearing with all the attendant complaints and complacencies. After watching her friends’ lives, Heidi decides in the end to adopt a baby and is last seen happily snuggling the child in a practically furniture-free flat just bursting with promise, hope and dreams. (How she plans to support herself and take care of the baby isn’t made clear.)
The maternal ending was considered problematical in 1988, but seems less of a copout in 2015. In fact, the feminist thrust of the play has also dulled in the ensuing decades, making Ms. Wasserstein’s play far less effective as an instructive tool. The Heidi Chronicles has always been weighed down by too much polemic passed off as drama. What keeps this production afloat now is the incredible filigreed and witty lines that so quickly delineate each character’s foibles and feelings.
Ms. MacKinnon has done particularly well with the characters that surround Heidi, but not so well with Heidi, Peter and Scoop. Ali Ahn, for instance plays close friend Susan Johnston who channels her hyper-hormonal teenage behavior into her tough, smart TV professional. She just glows from scene to scene. Tracy Chimo, an actress making her mark in TV (Orange Is the New Black), managed to make Fran and all the other characters she played warm-hearted, even in their sometimes acidic, pro-feminist takes on life. The woman for whom Scoop abandons Heidi is the compliant Lisa played by Leighton Bryan who made it clear that she was no airhead despite Scoop’s fairly low opinion of her capacities.
Mr. Biggs simply is miscast as the macho guy. He comes across as a young man wearing his father’s shoes and not filling them very well. He is simply too soft around the edges. Mr. Pinkham fares the best, his awkwardness turning into sensitivity and strength as his character becomes a doctor treating children with AIDS. Elisabeth Moss never seems to change much. Even her hairdo stays basically the same, long hair, sometimes pulled back, but never reflecting the different eras she lives through. She creates a warm, yet sardonic Heidi, but never fills the stage with a charisma as this character should.
John Lee Beatty’s sets are simply too busy, entering and exiting on a donut turntable through doors in three pretty much blank walls onto which Peter Nigrini’s projections of artwork and news events for each succeeding era are shown. Jessica Pabst’s costumes, on the other hand, were period and character perfect.
The Heidi Chronicles (through May 3, 2015)
The Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th St. in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-239-6200 or http://www.theheidichroniclesonbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and35 minutes including one intermission