At the end of Wendy Wasserstein's "An American Daughter," a woman undergoing grueling confirmation hearings is alone with her father, a U.S. senator.
Lyssa has been nominated for surgeon general. Her opinions on abortion are opposite those of her father. A close friend, a gay Republican who is anti-abortion, tells a TV reporter that Lyssa once evaded jury duty. The ensuing ruckus puts a harsh spotlight on her father as well.
For a moment, the issues that have filled the stage with glib opinionizing are blessedly absent. It is just father, daughter and the spirit of their forebear, an alcoholic who made a terrible president and a great general, Ulysses Grant. The senator gives his daughter a letter Grant sent his daughter in 1862, when the South was winning the Civil War. The simple letter is infused with Grant's indomitable spirit.
Hal Holbrook plays the senator. Whenever he reads Americana in that craggy voice, I turn to mush. This was no exception. I found myself wishing the play had more moments where it rose above its own fray to put things in a larger perspective.
As it is, "An American Daughter" seems a fascinating first draft. Its main concern is what happened to the "uncommon women" Wasserstein described 20 years ago, the boomers who would have remarkable careers, satisfying marriages, etc., etc. Though Lyssa has a reasonable facsimile of both, the play leaves her melancholy.
Her closest friend, a black Jewish woman, is distraught that she cannot have a child. The only contented women are her father's old-fashioned wife and her husband's former student, a hotshot who can turn anything into salable feminist r hetoric.
The bleakness is undercut by the fact that the play too seldom gets beyond its constant verbalizing. Characters are rarely developed too often, they seem mere mouthpieces or plot devices.
Kate Nelligan infuses great vitality and passion into Lyssa, though her conscious evocation of Hillary Clinton may not make Lyssa universally beloved. Lynne Thigpen is smashing as her black, Jewish friend, though too much about her is unresolved, as is the gay friend, played drolly by Bruce Norris.
Peter Riegert plays Lyssa's husband as if it were standup comedy. Elizabeth Marvel makes the feminist more abrasive than necessary.
John Lee Beatty has designed yet another beguiling drawing room, superbly lit by Pat Collins. Jane Greenwood's costumes transcend Washington drabness.
Wasserstein said she wanted to do something topical. Maybe she should run symposiums on Beatty's set. For topicality, you can buy newspapers or cultivate friends who give stimulating dinner parties. You don't need to go to the theater.
Political comedies are unusual if only because dramatists rarely seem to take politics seriously enough to make fun of it.
Wendy Wasserstein is obviously an exception, for in “An American Daughter” she is making a distinct and often amusing attempt to expose that soft underbelly of American political life, its media awareness and its consequent confusion of public opinion polls and democracy.
Staged very handsomely by the Lincoln Center Theater as part of its New American Plays series, it opened at the Cort Theater last night as bright as a new penny even if as fake as a three-dollar bill. Little matter; the brightness at this point on Broadway is far more important than the fakery.
The constant difficulty with Wasserstein’s theatre so far—and, after all, her career is even now only at the end of it’s beginning—is that so far it seems to promise more than it actually delivers.
Here, you think, we are going to have a scathing attack on the moral bankruptcy of our political life; but although we nearly do, when the chips are down, the statutory Lincoln Bedroom joke uttered and the staged TV interviews are being given, we don’t. The writing, and the circumstances, are not savagely broad enough for satire, nor scrupulously honest enough for comedy.
The situation, although dramatically promising, is, by the standards of ordinary political commentary, slightly hackneyed.
Lyssa Dent Hughes, a 47-year-old physician married to a Georgetown University sociologist best known for his book “Towards a Lesser Elite,” has been nominated by the president as U.S. surgeon general and is awaiting Senate confirmation hearings.
The daughter of a distinguished U.S. senator and a fifth-generation descendant of President Ulysses S. Grant, Lyssa is accustomed to Washington Beltway manners, customs and foibles—even one of her best friends is a right-wing gay political commentator.
She is being subjected to a family interview conducted by a formidable, duty-driven and priggish TV analyst, Timber Tucker, for a program that sounds like a cross between “60 Minutes” and “Nightline.”
Prompted by her bitchy gay friend, it comes out that she once neglected to respond to a jury-duty summons. Horror upon horrors! We are thrown what even the TV commentator calls—what but?—“Jurygate,” and shades of Zoe Baird, Lani Guinier and Kimba Wood, Lyssa’s confirmation process threatens to unravel.
Compounding matters are opinion polls showing that the women of America find her snobbish and unsympathetic. Even her school friend, the First Lady, does not telephone her. And now, fearless, fearsome, Timber Tucker comes ‘round for what could be a second, coup de grace interview.
If only she had gone with Larry King, or even Barbara Walters—all this play need never have happened! Where was Lyssa’s Beltway savvy when she needed it?
The writing suffers from a certain smartassed cuteness—at its lamest in such asides as “organized religion always gives me migraines,” at its best in sharp, unexpected topical thrusts of wit such as describing Lyssa’s best friend, a black and Jewish woman doctor, as “a walking Crown Heights.”
Yet while the play sometimes really is amusing, the situation proves unrealistically loaded. The failure to respond to a jury notice, though and indictable offence, is more explicable, and more “spinnable,” than those which derailed Lyssa’s true-life counterparts.
And those damaging TV interviews are conducted at a totally unrealistic level of ad hominem antagonism which even the chattily abrasive British TV has never sunk to, let alone American.
However, if you are going to have a political drawing-room comedy, then you couldn’t have a prettier drawing room than the glamorous Georgetown living room provided by John Lee Beatty, crispier or wittier costumes than those by Jane Garwood, and a generally good cast smoothly articulated by director Dan Sulliavan.
The two outstanding performances come from Kate Nelligan, who is brilliantly convincing as the beleaguered Lyssa, and, in the play’s one seemingly deeply felt role, Lynne Thigpen, marvelously tart as the middle-age, childless, black, Jewish doctor suicidally agonizing over her inability to either save life or give it.
Oddly, for Lincoln Center, some of the acting is unexpectedly ineffective, such as Bruce Norris’ shrill gay (the writing doesn’t help him), Cotter Smith’s dull TV man (I suppose ditto) and Penny Fuller as the senator’s fourth and understanding wife.
The rest are fairly conventional, with Hal Holbrook finely understanding and loveable as the senator, Elizabeth Marvel neat as a post-feminist sexpot who has written “The Prisoner of Gender,” and Peter Riegert sweetly rumpled as Lyssa’s decent but errant husband.
All in all, “An American Daughter” is a play of parts—some of them good, some of them not so good—but it is a play that is at least provocative at a gentle, Beltway dinner-party level.
The members of the audience practically purr, like cats anticipating a favorite meal in a warm kitchen, when the curtain goes up at the Cort Theater. There before them is a tasteful but comfortable environment that evokes affluence, education and reassuringly human disarray.
Technically, what they're looking at is a living room (wonderfully designed by John Lee Beatty), but for theatrical purposes, it's a drawing room. Witty words will doubtless be spoken here. Romantic, familial and even political conflicts will surely occur within a structure as attractively upholstered and sturdily made as the furniture onstage.
This is, after all, the world of Wendy Wasserstein, the author of ''The Sisters Rosensweig'' and ''The Heidi Chronicles'' and one of the few American playwrights since S. N. Behrman to create commercial comedies of manners with moral and social heft. And at least the first five minutes of ''An American Daughter,'' a Lincoln Center production that opened on Broadway last night, seem to confirm fond expectations, which unfortunately will be dashed all too quickly.
A 1960's pop song, redolent of lost innocence, floods the air; a woman of obvious importance (you've just heard her nomination for surgeon general announced on television) dances along like a goofy schoolgirl; and no sooner does a second character enter than the sharp repartee soars.
It doesn't take long, though, to detect a sweaty uneasiness in the play, a sense that its creator, in venturing into the strange land of national politics, is operating from the premise ''When in doubt, add more.'' The one-liners just keep accumulating from characters who tend to describe themselves in the terms of comically annotated resumes as soon as they enter a room.
Themes (big themes), relationships (deep and confusing ones), plot complications (of the melodramatic variety) are piled to the toppling point, most of them never satisfactorily defined. Neither Dan Sullivan's chipper, keep-it-moving direction nor Ms. Wasserstein's justly famed ear for dialogue and bone-deep sense of craft can conceal the feeling that she doesn't know entirely where she's heading or how to get there.
Lyssa Dent Hughes (Kate Nelligan), the title character of ''An American Daughter,'' is an brilliant doctor, loving wife and mother and scintillating Georgetown hostess who, at the play's beginning, seems poised to take on the additional, immense duties of the surgeon general. Is such a juggling act possible? Is she indeed, to use her own word, overcommitted?
Very similar questions are suggested by the play itself, which follows what happens when Lyssa and her family come under the grotesque media scrutiny that is the sorry lot of nominees for public office. Indeed, like her heroine, Ms. Wasserstein often seems to be operating from a Filofax overstuffed with lists of things to accomplish: issues to address, emotional buttons to push, jokes to sell, plot points to chart.
Many of the work's characters bring enough topical and emotional weight to be given plays (or at least magazine profiles) all their own. Judith B. Kaufman (Lynne Thigpen), Lyssa's best friend, is a woman's oncologist who is black and Jewish and, in her 40's, struggling desperately to conceive a child.
Walter Abrahmson (Peter Riegert), Lyssa's husband, is an academic and author of an influential (if nearly forgotten) study of liberalism and deep in a midlife identity crisis. (When he reads about a man he knows going crazy and taking hostages, in another instance of this play's excess of topical detail, he wonders if it could have been him.)
Then there's Morrow McCarthy (Bruce Norris), a close friend of Lyssa and Alan (though why, exactly, is never explained), a pundit who is young, conservative and gay. And the euphoniously named Quincy Quince (Elizabeth Marvel), a Naomi Wolf-type second-generation feminist who has romantic designs on . . .
The cast also features Hal Holbrook, as professionally avuncular as ever as Lyssa's father, Alan Hughes, a Republican Senator; Penny Fuller as his addled socialite wife, and, enjoyably, Cotter Smith as the television reporter who discovers the trivial sin (Lyssa forgot to answer a jury summons) that will brew up a media scandal of Zoe Baird proportions.
All of these characters can be very funny in describing just who they are and what, in social terms, they represent. And at its best, ''American Daughter'' is a bit like watching C-Span with a shrewd, wisecracking friend. (Judith describes listening to the '' 'I can't believe I'm middle aged and the culture isn't about me anymore' radio station.'')
But their relationships with one another are never credible, again in part because Ms. Wasserstein is trying for too much. (Do we really need the flicker of a possibility of a romance between Morrow and Judith?) Serious acts of betrayal occur in this play, but since no persuasive motivation for them is established, they have no dramatic clout.
Ms. Wasserstein may be saying something about a world that reduces people to sound bites and social abstractions. At one point, Morrow, trying to justify his bad behavior toward Lyssa and Walter, says: ''It's like writing a column. I'd forgotten they were people I know and like.'' Yet the playwright is also working principally in bite-size slices of sound, sentiment and humor. When a character comes forth with a line like ''I don't know who I'm supposed to be anymore,'' it never feels truly earned by what came before. And when Ms. Wasserstein tries to recreate the pathos of Gorgeous's celebrated broken-shoe monologue from ''The Sisters Rosensweig'' in Judith's description of her botched suicide attempt, it sags with strain.
The actors with the most superficial parts come off best, since their unexplained contradictions are kept to a minimum. (Ms. Marvel provides a delectable cartoon of a woman for whom feminism is only skin deep.) The others, accomplished performers all, seem largely uncomfortable, grasping for feasible moments to play. The dazzling Ms. Nelligan, an expert in portraying conflicted souls, is wasted in an idealized, passive role that seems little more than a poster for Ms. Wasserstein's feelings about a country that continues to thwart its best and brightest women.
Ms. Nelligan delivers Lyssa's big position speech on this subject, before television cameras, beautifully. But what registers as far more moving is a small, throwaway moment immediately after, in which a technician removes the microphone from her lapel.
There's a sweet, pathetic awkwardness in the silence here, in the anti-climatic return to earth. It is one of the very few scenes that comes across as palpably real in a play undone by the admirable desire to achieve too much.
With "An American Daughter," Wendy Wasserstein gets angry. Or rather, the anger that's always slept beneath her humor wakes up and announces itself, sometimes too baldly, more often too predictably, but always with the playwright's commitment and compassion (and another "c" --- craft) that, put together, make for her most ambitious work to date. But like the middle-aged characters whose lives it chronicles, "An American Daughter" sacrifices as much as it gains.
Overtly political and peopled with enough Beltway archetypes to staff a Sunday-morning debate show, "An American Daughter" doesn't forgo Wasserstein's trademark wit, though the humor here is of a more pointed sort. But lacking the presence of a scene-stealing crowd-pleaser like Madeline Kahn's Gorgeous in "The Sisters Rosensweig," the new play probably won't match the popularity of that hit. Still, Wasserstein's rueful examination of living with the consequences of old choices should find an audience
The daughter of the title is Lyssa Dent Hughes (Kate Nelligan), a professor and champion of women's rights nominated for the post of surgeon general. Awaiting Senate confirmation, the upright Lyssa suddenly finds herself in the sort of nonsensical media controversy with consequences that could prove anything but silly. The setup gives Wasserstein ample opportunity to take on any number of foes, from a destructive media machine to gay conservatives and, most directly, young neo-feminists too self-absorbed to grant the uncommon women of Wasserstein's generation their due respect.
All come together at a dinner party being taped at Lyssa's well-appointed Georgetown townhouse for a network primetime newsmagazine. In attendance: her husband, Walter Abrahmson (Peter Riegert), a '60s liberal whose book "Toward a Lesser Elite" is regarded by his students as more history text than modern study; Lyssa's father, Alan Hughes (Hal Holbrook), a famous senator; the senator's new wife, "Chubby" (Penny Fuller) a bubbly socialite; Judith B. Kaufman (Lynne Thigpen), Lyssa's longtime friend, fellow feminist and successful physician; Quincy Quince (Elizabeth Marvel), a miniskirted neo-fem and relentless media hound; and Morrow McCarthy (Bruce Norris), the 30-year-old gay conservative pundit whose friendship for Lyssa might not run as deep as it appears.