Grant in The Heidi Chronicles.
Wendy Wasserstein, Directed by Maria Mileaf
Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Sept. 2
One name: Kate Jennings Grant. She is the main reason you
must see this extremely affecting production of Wendy Wasserstein’s
deeply felt play. There are abundant other reasons, but Grant
is delivering, or perhaps living, the performance of the year.
There is little that comes close to matching her delicately
considered moment-to-moment work, and I doubt anything can
best it. This is not a hyperbolic love note to this actress;
she really is that good.
Grant plays Heidi Holland, a brainy and beautiful single woman
whose journey through life as a baby boomer is the engaging
story chronicled. We travel with her from a college mixer
in 1965 to mixed-up lecture slides in 1989 when she is on
the art faculty at Columbia College. Along the way we meet
her friends and loves who will help to sketch the changing
times and social upheavals when America turned from Marcus
Welby, M.D. to Seinfeld.
Well-chosen music from the differing time periods is nicely
integrated into the play by sound designer Scott Stauffer,
while David Lander’s precise lighting also aids in time transitions
on Neil Patel’s versatile and dignified set. Janus Stefanowicz’
costumes beautifully establish place and time while revealing
However well-designed, though, plays of such episodic form
can fail to engage us on a profound level because they often
exist as mere snapshots of changing eras. This is not the
case here; Wasserstein’s writing is illuminating and crafted
so that the transitions seem utterly natural. But even such
writing will fail in the theater if it is not played well.
Here it is played to near perfection by a talented cast who
support Grant with equally truthful work.
Christopher Corts, Patricia Buckley, Jenn Harris and Laura
Heisler play multiple roles, clearly defining their different
characters with economy and sufficient color to keep them
from becoming mere sketches as can happen in such instances.
All are excellent; Heisler (who appeared last summer at the
Williamstown Theatre Festival in Top Girls and Bus
Stop) is extraordinary.
Lynn Hawley, familiar to BTF audiences, is well cast as Susan,
one of Heidi’s close friends who will eventually show the
downside to a successful career, a problem that asserts itself
into the center of the play and Heidi’s own struggle. Wasserstein
asks how it is possible to realize one’s full potential in
one’s chosen work while also fulfilling the desire for a family
and the need of a home. In Hawley’s sharply etched Susan,
we see a person who, though good at heart, has lost something
warm and personal on her career climb.
The two significant men in Heidi’s life are her closest and
lifelong friends. Either one could have been her mate were
it not for some cosmic joke or opposing need. As her lover
Scoop Rosenbaum, Scott Lowell invests Scoop with the appropriate
cockiness, but goes so far beyond that in the later part of
the play that his grief at life decisions becomes our own.
A moment where Lowell and Grant look with affection at a baby
is so perfectly played that we taste the bittersweetness and
share the burning in the eyes.
Tom Story is terrific as Peter Patrone, a homosexual pediatrician
to whom Heidi may be even more spiritually connected. Eschewing
all stereotypes and lampooning them when required, Story has
an easy and endearing comic sense that seems especially close
to Wasserstein’s own. As Maria Mileaf, the sensitive and knowing
director of this production, quotes in her program note, Wasserstein
felt that “the real reason for comedy is to hide the pain.”
That seems to me one of the simplest and most profound explanations
for comedy. And somehow it escaped me to note that for all
its trenchant observations of life, The Heidi Chronicles
is at its core a brilliant comedy. It just also happens to
be a very realistic one.
But again, it’s the human drama that compels, and none is
so compelling as Grant, whose physical changes in the role
rea subtly achieved with a cool poise that must belie the
madness backstage as she does quick costume changes. Her accomplishment
is so much more than costumes and hair, of course. To watch
Grant’s gradual inner growth as Heidi is theatrical magic.
By the end of the play, we feel that we have experienced an
entire slice of the life of a real person, and that may be
the supreme accomplishment of this actress whose pure sensuality
is matched by her quick intellect and genuine soulfulness.
The performance is a tribute to not only Wasserstein’s seemingly
autobiographical writing, but to the recently deceased author
herself. As long as there are such actresses as Grant and
such productions as this lovingly crafted one, Wasserstein’s
voice will have a degree of immortality.
Comedy Works Double, Double
Rick Elice & Roger Rees, directed by Roger Rees
Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 17
Roger Rees bet the farm on this one.
When it was announced that Rees would direct his own play
as a main-stage offering in only his second year as artistic
director at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it was practically
an invitation for people to raise concerns of him being self-serving.
Thus, it was with a mixture of dread and morbid curiosity
that I entered the theater to see what is being billed as
a comedy thriller. I really didn’t want to write another bad
review of the WTF because, contrary to some claims, I do like
Rees—even if I loathed WTF productions of Cole Porter’s Anything
Goes (which he also directed) and Tennessee Williams’
Sweet Bird of Youth.
Hopes lifted on seeing Neil Patel’s very smart set for Double,
Double in which art deco is at amicable war with tribal
art, resulting in a lofty elegance that foreshadows something
darker. It appears that Patel has used elements of the recent
Romeo and Juliet to create his own set where posh mingles
dynamically with austere; if so, it’s admirable recycling
with the reused pieces doubling nicely in their new roles.
As it turns out, Rees keeps the farm, but with one caveat:
If the preceding three paragraphs created any suspense, it
is probably equal to the amount of suspense or thrills generated
by the entire first act and a major portion of the second.
The few modest thrills provided are mostly psychological-intellectual
Regarding thrills, Double, Double is substandard, but
it does provide laughter. The play is more a puzzler of what
is actually going on with a light comic element continually
defusing any sense of danger. Possibly it is better described
as a comedy noir. It is not as if we are presented with a
great mystery to be solved in the first two-thirds of the
play, but there is a fair amount of intrigue to see how the
characters are going to pull off a subterfuge that will make
Given that it does resolve itself with a clever, even shocking,
ending preceded by a wonderfully staged bit of physical mayhem,
it would be unfair to give anything away. Suffice to say that
it begins with the very proper-seeming Phillipa James bringing
home a street person, Duncan McFee, for the purpose of impersonating
her recently deceased husband. It may require that audiences
suspend a fair amount of disbelief, but even Hitchcock (who
loved doubles themes) required that from time to time. The
trick, he said, was in making everything happen so fast that
the audience doesn’t notice.
If the script has its deficiencies, the production does not,
and it moves so briskly and assuredly that we happily give
ourselves over to Rees’ carefully wrought direction, his finest
here since The Film Society and The Rivals.
Not only does Rees run a tight ship (anything doesn’t
go here) where all scenes are perfectly paced, and all technical
concerns sail through without a hitch, but he also nurtures
two terrific performances that sweep us away.
Lovely Jennifer Van Dyke, as Phillipa, endows her character’s
every change with enough conviction to lead us wherever she
wills, and her emotional twists and turns in the final scenes
are riveting. The showier role, however, belongs to Matt Letscher
as Duncan; he’s an extraordinarily gifted young actor with
great range and flexibility. With a fresh, natural comic sense,
he so embroiders the lines as to make them even funnier, and
he is equally adept at romance and gravitas. His character,
particularly after a Shavian shave and re-creation (think
Pygmalion), is totally engaging.
With Van Dyke and Letscher’s prickling interplay, Rees’ crackling
direction and Charles Foster’s subtle lighting, this is by
far the most accomplished piece of the WTF season. If you’ve
strayed away, it’s time to return, double-time.