Much though I often wish otherwise, going to the theater is never a completely pure experience. Even when you don’t know anything about the show when you walk through those doors. Even when you’ve tried so, so hard not to have any preconceived notions about the material you know you’re about to face.
Because you bring yourself to the theater, always. Your good day, or your bad day. Your desire to escape. Your desire to see yourself reflected back at you on stage. Your desire to have a good time, or a thought-provoking one. Those things… they all walk in the doors with you. And they all become a part of your experience of the show you’re seeing.
The experience of theater is inherently subjective. You are uniquely yourself, and you experience material in a unique way. Which really, is pretty damn cool.
I mean all of this musing as a preface for the fact that the day I went to see The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway, I walked in the doors knowing next to nothing about the play, but so very looking forward to seeing a show, written and directed by women, starring a woman, that I knew had spoken so very deeply to many of the women in my life. I also walked in the doors after a series of several long days in which I spent a lot of time thinking about the ways we speak and write about women in the media today, particularly in conversations about domestic abuse. Earlier that evening I’d sent Lucky a final draft of this post for review, and at intermission, from my balcony seat at the Music Box Theatre, I pressed publish and put my thoughts out into the world. And I braced myself for backlash, as I’d wager any woman writing on the internet about women’s issues must.
To say I was in the mood for a play that would speak to me about my experience, and light a fire under my ass, or illuminate the path forward, is an understatement. I was SO looking forward to this feminist masterpiece. I was looking forward to having my life or my mind or my heart or my day or my something changed by Wendy Wasserstein’s work.
To say it pains me to admit that I completely disliked the show would also be an understatement. I can’t remember the last time I left the theater feeling less inspired and more solidly defeated than I did that night. It was wildly disheartening, and in the aftermath I struggled to understand what my friends had seen in the play that I’d so completely missed.
Because I walked out onto 45th Street feeling like… OMG. It’s been 27 years and nothing has changed. We’re no better off. A child of the 80s, I am quite literally Judy, and my life is full of the exact same struggles that Heidi and Susan (and Lisa and Fran and Jill) all face. I am still paid less for the work I do. I still have relatives telling me to stop worrying so much about my career, because if I don’t I might die childless and alone. I still struggle to form lasting relationships with men who are not intimidated by my professional drive (or loud mouth or forceful opinions) who are looking for an equal partner and willing to put in the work that it takes to BE an equal partner in return.
But what’s worse, was that I also walked out onto 45th Street feeling like… What even was the point of that? What was Wasserstein even trying to say? The show felt like a series of vignettes which, by the end, made no coherent statement at all.
Maybe The Heidi Chronicles was revolutionary in 1988 simply because it put the inner lives of women on stage, no matter what it did or didn’t say. Maybe in 1988 that was enough, and it didn’t need to have a cohesive idea around which it was organized. Maybe it didn’t need to make a comment, or create new context, because it’s existence alone was enough.
But it’s not 1988 anymore. And you don’t get points just for putting women on the stage. We’re half the bloody population and we’re 68% of the theater-going audience and just standing an articulate version of one of us on the stage is not enough anymore. That’s just… It’s basic. You gotta give me something else, here.
Maybe it’s that The Heidi Chronicles is so much of it’s time that it just hasn’t aged well. And maybe it’s just not a good play. (I kind of suspect that, actually, because, again… What are you saying, Wendy Wasserstein? And why on earth can’t I tell just by watching your play?)
But some part of me believes the production itself deserves at least some of the fault, here, too. Not so much the actors as the director, Pam MacKinnon. Because this production just felt like such a limp, literal interpretation and presentation of the work. It brought nothing new to light, gave me no new contextual lens through which to view the play nearly 30 years later, and frankly just left me feeling frustrated and cold and… ugh.
I know. I’m asking for a lot. But so is everyone who walked in that door. We all came in with baggage. For the women maybe it was uncles who say stupid shit at the dinner table over holidays, or men in our past who used the word ‘opinionated’ interchangeably with ‘bitch,’ or bosses who gave us side-eye when we reached a certain age, wondering when we’d abandon them to pop out babies, as if that was the only possible path. Maybe the men had stifled mothers, or sisters they’d watched struggle with the double-standards women are constantly being measured against. Maybe they’d spent pre-show drinks listening to a friend rail against the language Pat Healy chose to use in his latest article in the New York Times.
A great play, a great production, cuts through all of that. It grabs you by the throat and takes you along with it. Makes you see things in a new, powerful way. I want greatness from work like this. And sadly, I don’t think it was there at The Music Box that night.