Strictly on the basis of demographics, the revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles that opened on Broadway last month should have been an excellent investment. More than two-thirds of Broadway ticket-buyers are women; nearly 80 percent have graduated from college (and nearly 40 percent have earned graduate degrees). They come from households with an average income of more than $200,000; their average age is 44. In short, the Broadway audience looks a lot like Heidi. Plus Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men’s Peggy Olson) brings a sweet sort of bewildered charm to the title role.
And yet, those affluent, well-educated, mid-40s women have not been flocking to the show. The production, directed by Pam Mackinnon, has filled no more than 75 per cent of the seats at the Music Box in any given week. Last week, that number sank to 50 percent and producers announced that the show would close on May 3 after 80 performances. The New York Times quickly concluded that the play just doesn’t speak to contemporary feminism any more. Never mind the unexamined Times-y assumption that Broadway ticket sales are the best measure of a show’s popularity or a playwright’s relevance. (In fact, Wasserstein’s plays enjoy frequent productions in professional, community, and academic theaters all over the country. The Dramatists Play Service, which publishes and licenses her plays, lists more than a dozen currently on stage or in the works around the country.) And never mind the absurd notion that cutting-edge feminism draws anyone to Broadway. Still, as an audience for this particular production, Heidi’s sisters have left her stranded. Could it be that Heidi speaks too well to the feminism of the Heidi demographic—and that she doesn’t measure up?
White, well-to-do professionals like Heidi (she is a tenured professor at Columbia University), still seem preoccupied with the question—as Anne-Marie Slaughter put it in a much-discussed Atlantic article a couple of years ago—“Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” That was never really Heidi’s problem, though it’s typically how the protagonist’s dilemma has been described. Heidi’s predicament, rather, is that for most of the play she doesn’t take charge of her life. “LEAN IN!” one wants to shout at her—not as a strategy to advance at work, but as basic dramaturgy. Heidi is a passive protagonist. What 40-something overworked second-shifting Broadway ticket-buyer has patience for that?
The play begins nearly at the story’s temporal endpoint, in 1989, when Heidi is an accomplished art history professor lecturing about unjustly ignored female painters of earlier centuries. It then flashes back to the Mad Men era—Heidi as a brainy teenager bored at a school dance in 1965—and hops up through the years, tracing Heidi and her friends in a dozen scenes to return us to the late ’80s. While Heidi holds fast to—well, to what is never exactly clear—everyone else seems to change as smoothly and instantly as the newsy background slides that designer Peter Nigrini projects onto the set’s shiny white walls to provide instant context: jowly Nixon, campaigning Mondale and Ferraro, headlines about the defeat of the ERA. Pop songs—specified in Wasserstein’s script—do the same: Betty Everett, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac.