Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 19, 2015
The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jessica Pabst. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Hair & make-up design by Leah J. Loukas. Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs, Bryce Pinkham, with Ali Ahn, Leighton Bryan, Elise Kibler, Andy Truschinksi, and Tracee Chimo.
The way Pam MacKinnon's new revival of the play at the Music Box looks back, however, is rather less valuable. Whereas The Heidi Chronicles once thrived on its timeliness, its orientation at the fulcrum of feminism, now even its most triumphantly progressive scenes are caked with the patina of quaintness. It's not so much that you've lost that vital feeling of witnessing the latest link in a never-ending chain of tumultuous, paradigm-shattering events, though there is that. It's that it seems that, for nearly everyone involved, the past under examination is so distant and unfamiliar that it may as well be the Paleozoic. And that does not do wonders for a story intended to be steeped in the blaring necessity of "now."
How exactly that "now" derives from all the "then" is what chiefly fuels the movement of Wasserstein's plot. After we meet the latter-day Heidi Holland (Elisabeth Moss), giving a lecture in New York about rarely recognized female painters, we rewind to where she began: Chicago, 1965, as she was discovering the boundaries between an independent woman and catching the attention of an independent man.
The trio's paths cross on and off over the years, as each comes increasingly close to being her or his truest self: Heidi an outspoken writer and historian; Scoop a serious social climber, complete with trophy wife; Peter an out gay man and accomplished pediatrician. All three share the stage only rarely, but when they do — particularly during a hilarious TV-morning-show appearance in which they all represent their various "groups" — the full scope of the era, and of the people it gave rise to, is made abundantly clear. It's not hard to see how, when The Heidi Chronicles was first done, the impact of the one-two punch of its relevance (the first act considers the war for equality, the second keeping the peace afterwards) would have been overwhelming, and the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize it won in 1989 well deserved.
Now, there's an unavoidable whiff of "old news" about this subject matter; what Heidi did and how she did it no longer has quite the same direct pull it once did. Still, the world and headlines being what they are (two words: Hillary Clinton), these are not deficiencies that couldn't be accounted for, or at least addressed, in a production that drew a firmer line between the 25 years the play depicts and the 25 years that have occurred since. Instead, MacKinnon has approached the script with an incredibly light hand that doesn't extend Wasserstein's work so much as stop it dead in its tracks. Her staging has an airiness about it, a sense of too-heightened reality, as though what we're viewing is actually Heidi's candy-colored recollection of what happened and not what actually did.
If this isn't an untenable concept, everything else must support it, and nothing does. John Lee Beatty's set is at once sparse, diffuse, and oversaturated, comprising many pieces from differently sized puzzles that just don't interlock. Jessica Pabst's costumes err a bit too much on the clever side of realistic to be absolutely correct. And the lights (Jill BC Du Boff) and projections (Peter Nigrini) likewise outline a world that's uncomfortably and indecisively positioned between ours and Heidi's. The leads' performances are almost an extension of this failing, as they too comment more frequently than they command the required respect.
There's no want of smugness in Biggs's portrayal of Scoop, but absent a lining of ambition, it comes across as more a condemnation of old money power players than a flesh-and-blood person. Pinkham's blend of gay clichés and twisted, over-the-top facial expressions similarly don't contribute to a layered Peter, but rather a caricature, and not a current one. Ahn crafts a solid comic portrait of Susan, but doesn't develop it over her many scenes; Leighton Bryan and Elise Kibler, as two other women who keep reappearing in Heidi's life, have a similar problem.
As for Moss, who's best known for the TV series Mad Men but proved adeptly comic onstage in Speed-the-Plow in 2008, she's too empty of a cipher. She makes Heidi an observer in her own life story, a woman who hints at depth without being able to reveal it, and whose stated desires are often at odds with her actions. She's at her most vivid only at her most staid, in the lecture scenes that begin each act, when Heidi is dissecting the likes of Sofonisba Anguissola, Clara Peeters, and Lilla Cabot Perry, and is able to speak with the resolute authority of someone who knows she can't be bettered.
Heidi would benefit greatly from adopting that attitude throughout — or, really, any attitude beyond the bright indifference that characterizes the majority of Moss's performance. Above all else, you need to believe that Heidi believes in her crusade, that she's willing to make the enemies and take the risks that will let her blaze the trail before her. But Moss is bereft of fire, steam, spark, or any other variation of heat. Hers is not a Heidi who makes things happen.
There is someone onstage who is. Though Tracee Chimo has minimal stage time, in a track on par with that of Bryan and Kibler, she maximizes every millisecond by creating, far and away, the most dynamic people onstage. The militant lesbian Fran is rough-edged but soft-centered, yet utterly convincing as both. As a terminally pregnant friend of Heidi's, she's a hoot with a darkly serious undercurrent. Her thousand-watt deadpan as TV host April finds every laugh her costars miss with their mugging, and then some. Even in her tiniest role, as a drive-by wedding guest, she displays a flair of personality that's to be found nowhere else here.
Chimo, as she's proven Off-Broadway in Circle Mirror Transformation, Bachelorette, and Bad Jews, always has a story to tell, and insists on telling it so big that it can't be ignored — but never bigger than it needs to be, and never without stealing the thunder from the actors around her. She's a true theatre treasure who gives this production what little gleam it has. There's not much she can do with the scant minutes she has onstage, but what she can do is marvelous, and a far better testament to the powers of women who won't say no and won't let go than anything else here in The Heidi Chronicles.