Plays from the past might have contemporary resonance but that doesn’t mean they’re good plays. Such is the case with Williamstown Theatre Festival’s revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s 1997 drama AN AMERICAN DAUGHTER. The premise: the nomination to Surgeon General of Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes - physician and public health advocate, and devoted mother, and an heir to Ulysses Grant, and daughter of a Republican Senator, and ardent feminist, and liberal progressive Democrat, and faithful wife, and loyal best friend - is threatened when a minor civic transgression of her past becomes national scandal. What ensues is a personal crisis that challenges the very ethos around which she has constructed a full life of career and family. Thus, “Can a woman have it all?’’ is the question, which, sadly, is still the elephant in the room in Election 2016.
Unfortunately, Wasserstein, who died at the age of 55 in 2006, doesn’t bring enough dramatic focus to the theme. She inserts multiple topics like intellectual hypocrisy, pundit class privilege, elitism, partisan politics and gay rights into her narrative. They all keep tripping over each other.
The plot, too, is needlessly complicated. Besides being embroiled in national scandal, Lyssa discovers her husband had an affair with the Left’s darling new feminist author, his former student who shows up at her doorstep. Adding to Lyssa’s problems are the festering jealousies of her single, childless, Black Jewish, lifelong best friend.
Motivations of characters are either contradictory or incredulous. Would a shark of a television journalist who just broke the item that jeopardizes Lyssa’s future in next lines of dialogue promise to help her clean up the PR mess he created? And would Lyssa divulge her husband’s affair to that same journalist?
What’s more, Wasserstein’s characters emerge as unappealing caricatures of the sort that litter our current political and media landscape, so it’s hard to really care about what happens to any of them. Worse, it’s hard to find sympathy for Lyssa, particularly as played by Diane Davis, who can’t seem to shake her dour expression (sometimes a real scowl). Of the cast of eight, Deborah Rush as the fourth wife of Lyssa’s Republican father scores a few moments of comic relief as a Kewpie doll version of Phyllis Schlafly.
The setting is a Georgetown townhouse, but the impressive set - a vast, crown-molded, formal living room - is not the kind that Lyssa and her husband, both 1970s leftist Ivy graduates, would inhabit: it’s more like a Mitch Gold version of a Pamela Harriman salon.
The often puzzling direction by Evan Cabnet accentuates rather than downplays the inadequate focus of Wasserstein’s script. Having non-speaking actors playing a news crew, for example, darting back and forth the large stage, setting up and breaking down equipment for an interview shoot, not only has nothing to do with action of principal characters, but also diverts attention from a plot that zigzags to begin with.
This is the second season that WTF has produced a work that was “less canonical” of a famous, deceased playwright. Last year it was William Inge’s dreadful OFF THE MAIN ROAD that had never before been produced. There’s usually good reason why plays never get produced to begin with or, if they do, never get revived. They’re not good plays. When it comes to the wonderful Wendy Wasserstein, I’ll remember her by THE HEIDI CHRONICHLES or THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG, thank you very much.
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