Playwright Wendy Wasserstein Dies
Adapted Several Plays for TV
New York, NY – Wendy Wasserstein, the acclaimed playwright and sometime television writer whose witty stage works delivered laughs as well as poignant insights about the plight women in late-20th-century America, died on Monday from complications of lymphoma at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. The lifelong New York City resident was 55.
Wasserstein, who was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 18, 1950, earned an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1971, after which she studied creative writing at City College of New York with novelist Joseph Heller and playwright Israel Horovitz. She further honed her craft at the Yale University School of Drama, where she enrolled shortly after her first play, Any Woman Can’t, was produced in 1973.
Wasserstein drew significant attention for the 1977 production Uncommon Women and Others. In 1979, the play was produced for television on the PBS series Great Performances, with a cast that included Swoosie Kurtz and Meryl Streep.
Wasserstein enjoyed her greatest success in 1989 with The Heidi Chronicles, the story of Heidi Holland, an art historian struggling to reconcile professional achievement and romantic fulfillment in the culturally volatile 1960s and ’70s. In the end, the play’s self-determined heroine, who refused to compromise her ideals even when doing so jeopardized her chances of finding a man to settle down with, becomes a single mother, just as Wasserstein herself eventually chose to do when she gave birth to a daughter, Lucy Rose, at age 48.
The Heidi Chronicles, which opened on Broadway following a successful Off Broadway run, won the Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for best play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. The play, which starred Joan Allen in the title role in the play, has been produced around the world, and in 1995 was filmed for television with Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead. Her best-play Tony marked was the first time a woman had won the award solo.
Wasserstein’s 1993 follow-up, The Sisters Rosensweig, concerned three sisters with different relationships to their Jewish roots. It was nominated for a Tony Award for best play. Four years later came the politically themed An American Daughter. Although the play a closed after just 89 performances, it, too, was adapted it for television.
Wasserstein’s other plays, which were produced Off Broadway, included Isn't It Romantic and Old Money. Most recently, she returned with Third, which opened last fall at Lincoln Center.
A prolific writer in other genres as well, Wasserstein published Sloth, a satirical take on self-help, as well as two books of essays, Bachelor Girls and Shiksa Goddess. She also wrote a children’s book, Pamela's First Musical, and librettos for two operas. Her first novel, Elements of Style, is to be published in April.
In addition to adaptations of her work, Wasserstein wrote other projects for television, including 1979’s 3 by Cheever: The Sorrows of Gin, a segment of the Liza Minnelli anthology Sam Found Out: A Triple Play and the 1992 short Kiss-Kiss, Dahlings! She also wrote the screenplay for the 1998 movie The Object of My Affection, starring Jennifer Aniston.
A devoted advocate of making theater available to all, Wasserstein fostered a program in conjunction with the Theater Development Fund, now known as Open Doors, to bring underprivileged students to see plays.
In addition to her daughter, Wasserstein is survived by her mother, two brothers and a sister. Her daughter will live with her brother Bruce, an investment banking executive and owner of New York magazine.
The lights on Broadway were to be dimmed on Tuesday night in her honor.