After last year’s Tony controversy involving an even greater lack of representation of women in theatre than usual, New York City has really stepped up this season with plays written by, directed by, or starring women in major roles. Both The Heidi Chronicles, playing on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, and Iowa, a new work that premiered this week at Playwrights Horizons, follow women’s narratives and their personal and societal connections.
The Heidi Chronicles, written by the late and great Wendy Wasserstein, follows Heidi (a stunning Elisabeth Moss) from her adolescence through adulthood as she grapples with her feminist ideals, pursues a career in studying women artists, and maintains relationships with her friends Susan (Ali Ahn) and Peter (Bryce Pinkham), and her ex-boyfriend Scoop (Jason Biggs). Filled with pop culture references, from Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” to John Lennon’s death, The Heidi Chronicles does not shy away from the cultural milestones experienced by the boomer generation–nor does it demure from honest discussions about feminism (which is now often thought of as a dirty word), an how it has affected Heidi’s life. Still, the play’s content remains as poignant and fresh as it was when it premiered twenty-six years ago. I credit that to Wasserstein’s emotionally rich characters, which have been brilliantly brought to life by the cast and Pam MacKinnon’s direction. Elisabeth Moss brings a constant inner life with Heidi, while Bryce Pinkham wins over the audience with his disarming charm (begin the Tony watch now). And though Heidi’s conflicts still resonate today, I almost wish they didn’t.
The Heidi Chronicles originally had its off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, which is now presenting Iowa, a new musical play written by Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond. Iowa follows Becca (Jill Shackner), a teenage girl who’s dealing with her crush on her math teacher (Lee Sellars), her not-so-great poetry, and the fact that her mother Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush) is marrying her online boyfriend and moving the two of them to Iowa. That’s about as much plot as I can give you, as Iowa is an absurdist romp that includes Becca’s best friend Amanda’s (Carolina Sanchez) issues with body images and popularity, Sandy’s fixation with the internet and ponies, and a pony actually coming on stage with a musical number of his own.
Iowa was disappointing for a number of reasons. The first was its billing as a “musical play.” While that was an accurate description of the show’s format, it allows for a confusing mishmash of songs. In some ways it’s a proper musical, primarily with, “I Don’t Know,” song by Becca and her mother. Their duet clearly delineated the characters’ conflicts and provided insight into their thoughts and dysfunctionally functional relationship. Sandy’s solo “Fun!” especially delved deep into her neuroses, which was both a terror and a delight. Meanwhile, other numbers, like the Amanda’s observations about cheerleaders and the pony’s thoughts about women (simply titled “Cheerleaders” and “Ponies,” respectively), were entertaining, but seemed to exist more in the realm of surreal sketch comedy. (The surreal nature of the show definitely disconnected with some theatergoers, as a few audience members walked out during the performance I attended.) The final blow for me was the show’s closing number, a song so earnest and hopeful that it completely underwrote everything that had preceded it. While I could see how Iowa actually wanted to disconnect from its audience through its subversive content, the results still left me a little too cold. Tickets and more information for The Heidi Chronicles and Iowa can be found here and here.