Season Planning, An Insider’s Look — Part 4

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Illustrations by Donald Ely

Hello there–Shirley here, picking back up with our season planning emails from this past summer. A lot has happened since July–we announced a new Artistic Director (welcome Adam!) I had a child (a son, Duncan, and he’s pretty darn awesome) and we opened our season with the run-away hit show Queens Girl in the World by the marvelous Caleen Sinnette Jennings. We’re off to an exciting start, and I couldn’t be more excited about where we’re headed this season.

I left off with my season planning overview with details on Stars of David (opening Dec. 22) From January 13-February 21 we will present:

SistersRosensweig_CThe Sisters Rosensweig

By Wendy Wasserstein

The Rosensweig sisters are different as can be. There’s Sara, the oldest, a high-powered international banker with a no-nonsense attitude; Gorgeous, a kvelling mother of four with an eye for faux designer fashion; and Pfeni, the youngest, a world-traveling journalist with a yearning for firmer roots. When the three hilariously reunite at Sara’s London home for her 54th birthday celebration, a barrage of suitors and several unexpected revelations make for one interesting weekend. A classic heartfelt comedy about women grappling with life choices.

Winner of the 1993 Outer Critics Circle award for Best Broadway Play
Tony Award nomination for Best New Play
Drama Desk Award nomination for Best New Play
“A funny and deeply felt look at finding one’s identity” – The Boston Globe

Wendy Wasserstein is often labeled with a series of qualifiers—she was a “Jewish playwright” a “female writer” and a “comedic genius”. But Wendy Wasserstein was also, quite simply, one of the most important American playwrights of our time.

Theater J has an important and intimate history with Wasserstein. In 2003, former Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth saw an evening of two new one-acts she wrote presented in the “First Glance” Series at Arena Stage. Struck by the honesty and depth of Wasserstein’s writing, Theater J committed to producing what was then slated to be a series of three one-acts in its next season. When writing about the proposed collaboration, Wasserstein observed:

 “Theater J is the kind of nurturing theater that I think is crucial to a play’s development. I look forward to being artistically invigorated by both their commitment and the community.”

Welcome to My Rash (bed)

Welcome To My Rash at Theater J (2004)

During the development and rehearsal process Wasserstein became increasingly invested in the concluding piece of the proposed triptych, Third. On opening night in January 2004 Theater J presented the world premiere of two one-acts: Third and Welcome to My Rash. Wasserstein went on to expand Third into a full-length play for the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. It would be her final major work before her premature death in January 2006. Theater J was honored to be such an integral part of this last chapter in Wasserstein’s life and hugely notable career.

Third at Theater J (2003)

Third at Theater J (2004)

From Ms. Wasserstein’s first professional production, Uncommon Women and Others (which propelled her into the New York theater scene), to her final play Third, she was able to reflect, dissect and sometimes seemingly predict the major cultural and social markers and dilemmas facing women between the 1970s and the early 2000s. She won a Tony Award for best new play for The Heidi Chronicles–the first time a woman had won the prize solo–and was honored with numerous other awards including the Obie, the Pulitzer Prize, a Drama Desk award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a host of other accolades and honorary degrees. More of her plays made it to Broadway than any woman playwright since Lillian Hellman.

While often remembered for the populist nature and likable sense of humor present in her plays, Wasserstein herself noted the politics of being popular in a 1997 interview with the Paris Review, “My work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy, and I have always thought, No, you don’t understand: this is in fact a political act. The Sisters Rosensweig had the largest advance in Broadway history.” (for a straight play) “Nobody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it’s about women.” The play marked other theatrical firsts: it presented three women all over the age of forty in fully developed, fleshed out roles; it explored questions of Jewish identity and assimilation through a specifically female lens; and for Wasserstein, it represented her one foray into the world of the “well-made play” (with nods to Chekhov both in its title and structure).

Wendy Wasserstein

Wendy Wasserstein

We must wonder now whether Wasserstein was being overly optimistic in her 1997 statement. The 2013-2014 Broadway season did not contain a single new play by a woman. The 2014-2015 season was better, but still far from balanced. Here in DC we’re on the tail end of a ground-breaking Women’s Voices Theater Festival that bumped our area-wide percentage of produced plays by women up to 37%. But even with these more promising statistics, the conversation about gender parity in New York and in regional theaters around the country is far from over.

I’ll speak more personally to say–while considering whether Theater J should produce The Sisters Rosensweig, I finally cracked open Wendy and the Lost Boys, the authorized biography of Wasserstein published in 2011–and found myself so moved by her life story. One of four hugely successful siblings born to immigrant parents, it seems almost unreal that only one of those siblings lived past the age of 62. And to read about how Wendy struggled to be taken seriously as a playwright by the NY establishment (read: mostly all male critics and taste-makers) despite her growing popularity and success, still feels deeply familiar today.

I rode an elevator with Wendy in 1994 when she came to speak at the University of Michigan, where I was a student. I was desperate to say the right thing to her in those three minutes, but tongue-tied, I said nothing. Her plays have touched me over the years, as her story does now.

We are thrilled to bring these Sisters to DC audiences, in the first professional production of the play since the 1995 National Tour.

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