Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Book I Read: Wendy And The Lost Boys by Julie Salamon

I didn't know much about Wendy Wasserstein before starting Julie Salamon's new biography. The basics: Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles, had a daughter late in life, and died of lymphoma in 2006 at age 55. What I learned from Wendy And The Lost Boys was just to what degree Wasserstein's clannish, secretive family shaped her work and how heady and thrilling it must have been to be young and involved in New York theater in the 1970's and '80s. The strongest character in the book besides Wasserstein herself is the playwright's mother Lola, a woman so convinced of her children's superiority (while often disdaining the conventional rituals of motherhood) that it seems almost preordained that Wendy's older sister Sandra became a pioneering female executive and her brother Bruce a massively successful investment banker. Wasserstein didn't show a serious interest in theater until after her years at Mount Holyoke; she made her name (after completing Yale Drama School) with the play Uncommon Women and Others, which drew heavily from the lives of her college friends. A young Meryl Streep appeared in a PBS production of Uncommon Women. Streep and Wasserstein were at Yale together and my favorite part of Wendy And The Lost Boys follows Wendy (along with Yale classmate Christopher Durang) through her association with the then-new Playwright's Horizons theater and eventually to a home at Lincoln Center under the leadership of friend and almost-but-not-quite life partner Andre Bishop. Bishop's patronage was the biggest single reason that Wasserstein's plays continued to enjoy major productions despite mixed critical reception. The two's personal relationship had considerably more peaks and valleys that Wasserstein's writing career. A pattern of deep, sometimes sexual, relationships with gay men is well-detailed; Salamon is as intrigued by Wasserstein's relationship choices (including one with fellow playwright Terrence McNally) as she is by anything in her writing career. Could all of these affairs have ended as tidily as Salamon describes them? Salamon's book celebrates the communities that theater engenders, and I'd love to read a more comprehensive history of the New York theater scene that Wasserstein came into. Since Wendy And The Lost Boys is ostensibly an "authorized" biography I suppose we'll never know. Wasserstein shared her family's penchant for secrecy (she was close to her siblings all her life) and the elaborate denials of her own health she constructs in the book's last section mirror those of her sister's long and unsuccessful battle with cancer. Wasserstein's defense mechanisms were vivacity and and a whirlwind of activity (though she was thoroughly professional while dealing with revisions to her plays or professional opportunities), but she came by those traits.honestly. The fact that her last years could have been easier if she'd let more friends in is a sad ending to a life of achievement and love.

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