[29 September 2011]
I’m not entirely sold on the literary quality of Wendy Wasserstein’s plays but, judging by Julie Salamon’s eminently readable biography, Wasserstein’s life contained enough plots and characters to keep a whole stable of authors in business. Wasserstein herself was not above using this material in her work—in fact she was apparently surprised that people would be upset at seeing thinly-disguised and unflattering portraits of themselves on stage—but even her most outrageous characters don’t begin to approach Salamon’s descriptions of the family matriarch, Lola.
Long before Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother capitalized on the American obsession with super-kids, Lola Wasserstein embodied the Jewish version of the all-demanding mother who believes in motivating her children by putting them down. What can you say about a mother who says, to a daughter already self-conscious about her weight, that when they walk down the street people “are all looking at you and thinking, ‘Look at that fat girl.’”? Or who, when Wendy won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is reputed to have responded with: “I’d be just as happy if she’d marry a lawyer”? On the other hand Wendy could hardly claim that her family failed to appreciate her achievements: representatives of the Wasserstein clan could be found in the audience of any play in which Wendy took part, even while she was in school, and Lola turned the family home into a shrine to her children’s accomplishments.
Lola was also a woman who believed in keeping secrets and was given to creating elaborate fictions when reality did not suit her. Among the secrets in the Wasserstein household two stand out: Lola’s marriage to Morris Wasserstein was actually her second (her first husband was Morris’ brother George) and she had a son, Abner, who was confined to a mental institution. Lola also invented grandiose stories including a fictional family history including ancestors who owned a villa—with tennis courts!—in Poland, a version of events which the Wasserstein children accepted as gospel.
It’s a good thing for Salamon’s book that Lola is as colorful a character as she is, because her daughter Wendy pales by comparison and your interest in her story will depend in part on your taste for reading about the trials and tribulations of someone who in fact led a very fortunate life. Granted, Lola doesn’t sound like the most nurturing of mothers, but many people have endured far worse without the blows being softened by the convenience of family funds to pay for a succession of private schools (a mediocre student, Wasserstein would have been out of luck had she needed to compete for scholarships) or the cushion such funds provided against the need to earn one’s living. This has always been a shortcoming of Wasserstein’s writing—if you don’t share her obsessions you may wonder what all the fuss is about—but to her credit Salamon does an excellent job of demonstrating how Wasserstein learned to dramatize her vulnerability to make people like both her and her plays.
Wendy and the Lost Boys will be catnip to Wasserstein’s fans, who apparently are legion: over 1,000 people attended her memorial service at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (Wasserstein died of lymphoma in 2006) with an additional 500 watching via video monitors set up at a theatre in the Julliard School. Salamon’s breezy tone, ample use of quotations (based on interviews which are identified in the endnotes), and shrewd inclusion of juicy details would make this book the ideal beach read, were the beach season not already concluded. Those looking for a more serious examination of Wasserstein and her works are more likely to come away from Wendy and the Lost Boys feeling as if they have been binging on the literary equivalent of junk food (very tasty junk food, to be sure) rather than consuming a nutritious meal.
Funny, but I felt the same after viewing performances of several of Wasserstein’s plays (including her greatest success, The Heidi Chronicles). They may have spoken directly to a New York theatre audience when first produced, so loaded are they with contemporary cultural references and in-group obsessions (has anyone ever so definitely documented the social pecking order among graduates of private colleges?) but with the passage of time they now seem as dated as old television sitcoms. Salamon spends little time considering the literary quality of Wasserstein’s plays, perhaps a wise decision given their uncertain place in the canon, but this choice leaves open the question of exactly why someone who may be an exceeding minor playwright in the grand scheme of things merits a biography of almost 500 pages.
The title is clever but misleading. Wendy and the Lost Boys alludes, of course, to Wendy Darling of J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, who acts as a sort of den mother to Peter and the Lost Boys and develops an unrequited crush on Peter. Wasserstein, who never married, was known for her friendships with (and sometimes crushes on) gay men, including Terrence McNally, Christopher Durang, Andre Bishop and William Ivey Long. The analogy ends abruptly there, however, because these men were in no way “lost boys” but adults with at least as many professional accomplishments as Wasserstein as well as romantic relationships of their own. “Wendy, the Lost Girl” would be a title more in keeping with Wasserstein’s life as presented in this book because, in contrast to the fictional Wendy Darling, Wendy Wasserstein seems to have had a very difficult time finding her place in the adult world.