WASSERSTEIN IN AN HOUR
"Uncommon Women and Others is a memory play. It begins with the brief voiceover of a man describing the superior qualities of the women whom “the college” produces and then shifts to a scene at a New York restaurant, where five friends who graduated six years earlier are reuniting over lunch. They playfully reenact the college dining-room ritual of clinking their glasses with silverware, to get everyone’s attention, and with that gesture the action shifts to the college itself, where these same women are seniors, wrestling daily with the most important decision of their lives: what to do after college.
Wasserstein had labored over how to structure the play and the result is two acts containing episodic scenes, mostly set at the women’s college and introduced by the male voice over. In the final episode, however, the man’s voice dissolves, a woman’s voice takes up the narration, and once again we see these women at the restaurant, six years older and still struggling with the question of what to do with their lives.
The structure supports the play’s strongest elements – elements that would become Wasserstein’s signature as a playwright: the characters and the humor. “I find that when the character work is good,” Wasserstein once said in an interview with this writer, “then things become funny. For myself, I find it harder to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be funny, and this will be my vessel,’ than to show what particular characters do….My writing comes from that school of women writers – Clare Boothe Luce, Anita Loos, Edna Ferber -- who wrote witty women….basically the women whom I write are witty people, and they’re witty and funny for a reason, whether they’re deflecting, whether they’re trying to puncture male pretentiousness, whether this is how they get by in society. These people happen to be funny or witty or ironic for a reason. Line for line, it scales as funny, but it actually has to do with character.”
Based undoubtedly on women whom Wasserstein had known at school, the characters are recognizable types but authentic – we see ourselves in them. There is Kate (Jill Eikenberry), the self-directed but scared young woman who wants a serious career, and there is Samantha (Ann McDonough), who (much like Wasserstein’s older sister Georgette) is beautiful and wants only to be married and have a family. Rita (Swoosie Kurtz) is the adventuresome one who likes to shock everybody with her behavior, and Muffet (Ellen Parker) is confused about whether to be a feminist or not. Holly Kaplan (Alma Cuervo) – the lone Jewish girl in this mix and the character most clearly based on Wasserstein – is overweight, without a boyfriend, and feels lonely and isolated. And there are several secondary characters, including the annoyingly chipper Susie Friend (Cynthia Herman) -- the perfect girl everybody loves to hate -- and the anxious academic achiever, Leilah (Glenn Close).
Ultimately, though, the play’s cleverness lies in the structure. Throughout most of Uncommon Women, Wasserstein entertains us with glimpses of these vibrant young women, each smart in her own way, each verbal and witty. Surely, we think, as we see them hanging out in their dorm discussing men, class work, and life, any self-doubt will be temporary and they will all have magnificent, uncommon destinies.
But in the final scene Wasserstein delivers the punch. Even though a couple of the friends attain the destinies they intended, none of them are satisfied or truly happy, Holly Kaplan especially. Quite the opposite: uncommon still, they are even more conflicted than when they were at school.
The reviews were generally effusive, and as Wasserstein had hoped, significant New York City and national publications weighed in. Almost every mainstream critic praised Robman’s direction and the cast, and welcomed a new, young voice to the American theater. Richard Eder, reviewing for The New York Times, wrote that “A terror of choices and the future afflicts all of [these women], and Miss Wasserstein has made this anguish most movingly real, amid all the jokes and the knowing sophistication.” Marilyn Stasio in Cue Magazine called it “Hilarious, touching, witty, insightful, and a lot of other nice things.” Edith Oliver, who knew the play from the O’Neill, where she was a regular dramaturg, wrote in The New Yorker about the “wonderful, original comedy. It is the girls and the games they play and their conversations that make the show, and every moment is theatrical. ‘We are all allowed one dominant characteristic,’ somebody says. That is not entirely true. The characters are never allowed to become types, and, for all their funny talk and behavior, they are sympathetically drawn.”
Even the notoriously tough John Simon praised Wasserstein for “a chortlingly mischievous sense of outer and inner dialogue, of what these collegians said or merely thought; and she observes her characters, one of whom must be herself, with a nice blend of sympathy and unsentimentality.” But he also urged Wasserstein to reach for a larger canvas. “There is no shape, no sense of direction, no purpose here, except recording something for memory's sake, which is all too private a pursuit.”
Indeed, not everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Time magazine’s Ted Kalem wrote, “While the play is laced with affectionately bantering humor and a gamy ration of powder-room candor, the characters are stereotypical.” The feminist critic Helene Keyssar would later describe the characters as “embarrassing stereotypes of female college students” and complain that Wasserstein had offered no alternative to, or substantial criticism of, her characters’ restrictive world.
Both objections – that her characters were stereotypical and that she was soft on feminism -- would follow Wasserstein throughout her career. But for the moment, Uncommon Women and Others was an Off-Broadway hit, and the amount of ink spent discussing it was bringing the twenty-seven-year-old dramatist a national reputation. The production sold out its entire short run (it closed on December 22, 1977, because the Phoenix had another show scheduled). Soon, however, Channel Thirteen/WNET filmed the play for Great Performances: Theater in America. In May 1978, with the original case except for Close, who was replaced by Meryl Streep, Wasserstein’s images of educated but self-doubting American women traveled into living rooms across the nation and made the young playwright a legion of fans."