Thursday, April 2, 2015

New York Theater Reviews—"The Heidi Chronicles" and "Placebo"

The Heidi Chronicles
Written by Wendy Wasserstein; directed by Pam MacKinnon
Performances through August 9, 2015
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Written by Melissa James Gibson; directed by Daniel Aukin
Performances through April 5, 2015
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs in The Heidi Chronicles (photo: Joan Marcus)
When Wendy Wasserstein won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play for The Heidi Chronicles, she became the first—and so far only—female American playwright to win the Tony. Wasserstein went on to write two more substantial plays (1992's wondrously warm The Sisters Rosensweig and 1997's political character study, An American Daughter) before her untimely 2006 death at age 55 of lymphoma.

The semi-autobiographical Heidi Chronicles covers a quarter-century in the life of Heidi Holland, a feminist art historian whom we meet giving a 1989 lecture about obscure female artists through the ages. From there, we jump back to several pinpoint, razor-sharp scenes between 1965 and 1989, as Heidi moves from naive co-ed to grad student to independent career woman, always dealing with her fraught relationships with the men in her life: Peter, whom she meets cute at a 1965 dance and who remains her backbone (and who is, she later discovers, gay); and Scoop, the self-confident letch who seduces Heidi at a 1968 New Hampshire Humphrey campaign headquarters and becomes her sometime lover until he finally marries another woman.

Several women are semi-constants in Heidi's ever-changing life, but—as the bittersweet but optimistic ending shows—she remains on her own: even the momentous decision (which foreshadows Wasserstein's own a decade later) that closes the play is made alone.

Wasserstein's episodic play, which comprises 13 scenes set during a 24-year period, takes the pulse of the playwright's generation socially, culturally and politically. The otherwise adroit director Pam MacKinnon has turned this entertaining revival into a time capsule, as each scene change is accompanied by a hit song from its era by Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Fleetwood Mac, Hall & Oates, etc. And many projections on John Lee Beatty's agile set design display momentous events or celebrities like the failure of the ERA amendment and Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan. Unmerited complaints that Heidi is dated stem from MacKinnon spoonfeeding her audience.

Wasserstein mixes humor and heartbreak with a touch of the sentimental, but her zippy one-liners hit with equal force and finesse, and Heidi herself remains an endearing combination of self-empowerment and naivete. In the original production, Joan Allen gave a magnificent portrayal shot through with humanity and tenderness. Although Elisabeth Moss does well as Heidi—she nails the great monologue scene where Heidi confesses her own disappointments and failures in what was supposed to be a celebratory speech—she lacks Allen's effortless charm, a crucial component of the character.

With the stark exception of Tracee Chimo—who plays several supporting roles with an unnecessary brashness that's the actress's stock-in-trade—MacKinnon has fashioned a fine supporting ensemble, led by Bryce Pickham's ever-loyal Peter and Jason Biggs' often disloyal Scoop. A strain of melancholy pervades at the end, as we realize that this talented playwright, who worked out her neuroses and frailities for all to see, is no longer here to chart where we're headed in the 21st century. Maybe more Wasserstein revivals will further remind us what we're missing.

Carrie Coon and Alex Hurt in Placebo (photo: Joan Marcus)
Like its namesake, Placebo seems an impersonation of a play, and the main problem is that writer Melissa James Gibson seems to care very little about the four characters she's put onstage, making them pawns for her to move around at will, not caring how implausible or downright deranged their actions and dialogue become.

Louise, a lab researcher who keeps tabs on women taking a new drug for their lack of libido (a sort of female viagra) checks on a 40-ish patient, Mary, who may have been given a placebo instead. Louise, who's also getting flirty with another researcher, Tom, whom she meets in the laboratory break room, has a home life in shambles: her live-in boyfriend, Jonathan, has hit a wall writing his dissertation on Pliny the Elder, while her 59-year-old (unseen) mother is on an oxygen machine.

Though too-familiar territory, it's fertile enough for any good writer. Instead, Gibson ignores her own content and context and allows the characters to go off on tangents, endlessly parsing nearly everything they say, like discussing the correct pronunciation of "Pliny" or "bogeyman" or punning on "needing" and "kneading" and on "oral" and "aural."

Consider this bit of dialogue:

LOUISE: But it's not insurmountable.
JONATHAN: Well, depends on your definition of mountable.   

Would a supposedly intelligent PhD candidate not know that "surmountable" is the correct word? In any case, it doesn't matter, as long as Gibson gets a cheap laugh. 

Later sequences become even more irritating, as when Louise and Tom listen to a recording of patients loudly having sex, then repeat what they've heard. Or when Louise and Tom sprint back and forth to the break room candy machine for minutes on end, choosing items but never taking them out of the machine. Or, in the final scene, Louise and Jonathan, who are about to break up, toss their apartment keys back and forth, since Louise commented on Jonathan's inability to do so. None of this makes any pertient or intelligent commentary on relationships, but Gibson (who wrote scripts for the current House of Cards season, by far its weakest) seems most interested in getting momentary reactions from the audience, no matter how little her play and its characters cohere narratively and psychologically.

Carrie Coon is an incisive actress but, although she has her moments as Louise, even she can't create a sympathetic character out of such disparate, self-contradictory fragments. Likewise, director Daniel Aukin, who fashions a clever mise-en-scene that overlaps the play's various settings, can do little else, lost as he is in Gibson's meanderings.

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