Appreciation: Wendy Wasserstein

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I once met Wendy Wasserstein—who died today of lymphoma at 55 — before she became "Wendy Wasserstein," at a party in Manhattan in 1977. She was a warm, voluble, round-faced woman who told me she had written a play about to be produced off-Broadway. It was called "Uncommon Women and Others," and it sounded very earnest and feminist and 70s, the sort of thing a man not yet required to go to theater for a living could easily pass up—which I did. But it launched Wasserstein on a playwriting career that questioned, with insight and humor and autobiographical honesty, those very feminist expectations. Her heroines were baby-boomers who had grown up with the womens movement, inculcated its ideals and still were confused and unfulfilled. Its hard to remember how fresh and meaningful her voice was to a generation of women in the 70s and 80s. She told a Time interviewer that she wrote her 1989 play "The Heidi Chronicles" "because I had this image of a woman standing up at a womens meeting saying, Ive never been so unhappy in my life. Talking to friends, I knew there was this feeling around, in me and in others, and I thought it should be expressed theatrically. But it wasnt."

Her characters and their dilemmas were instantly recognizable, partly because they had so much of her in them. "Uncommon Women" is about the reunion of a group of friends from Mount Holyoke College (where she went to school) after six years. In her 1983 play "Isnt It Romantic," a single writer spars with her Jewish parents, whose fondest wish is for her to tell them one day, "I just got married, lost 20 pounds and became a lawyer." "The Heidi Chronicles"—which ran two years on Broadway and won both a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize—traces 20 years in the life of an art historian who goes her own unattached way and winds up adopting a child. (Wasserstein herself would become a single mother in 1999.)

She went on to write about competitive siblings ("The Sisters Rosensweig"), women in politics ("An American Daughter") and, in her latest play, "Third," a liberal college professors confrontation with a privileged WASP student. Her work, I must admit, didnt always satisfy me—settling, I thought, too often for easy one-liners, pop references and sitcom characters to win over the audience. But she was indispensable. When she came on the scene, prominent women playwrights were a rarity; today, women like Rebecca Gilman ("Boy Gets Girl"), Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog/Underdog") and Lynn Nottage ("Intimate Apparel") are among the most exciting and original voices in theater. Wendy Wasserstein helped make them possible.