On Saturday evening, scenes and passages from the works of playwright Wendy Wasserstein were featured as the Hangar Theatre’s second virtual streaming offering. “Uncommon Excerpts and Others: The Wendy Chronicles” was assembled and co-directed, with Shirley Serotsky, by artistic director Michael Barakiva, who had worked for and was mentored by Wasserstein early in his career. Coming full circle, he noted, as a young Wasserstein herself had been mentored by longtime Hangar artistic director Robert Moss.
The show opens with actors reading from the preface to “An American Daughter” (1997) and continues with scenes from that play and more familiar ones––Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Heidi Chronicles” (1988), “Uncommon Women and Others” (1977) and “The Sisters Rosensweig” (1992). There are also selections from letters and essays; these are mostly read rather than performed from memory by the 15 actors, which has a somewhat distancing effect.
The mingling of comic/dramatic scenes and straightforward, informational and sometimes prosaic prose also keeps us detached, working against an emotional connection. Collaged or fragmentary construction isn’t new, of course, and it’s appearing often lately as a favored structural device in online videos. But rather than creatively juxtaposing, its use here feels more like a commemorative memorial than a cohesive dramatic event.
Some scenes are amusing if predictable (“Boy Meets Girl”); others, such as the longer exchange between Heidi and her old friend Peter, achieve real narrative power. Revealed in one extended passage, Wasserstein’s attempts at pregnancy in her 40s and the eventual birth of her daughter are sobering but contrast wildly with the light social wit of other sections––a theatrical smorgasbord where odd combinations mash haphazardly.
And the content is now also nostalgic. Wasserstein had a prolific and celebrated career up till her death in 2006, at 55, from lymphoma. Born in 1950, she grew up affected by the limiting cultural definitions of womanhood from that generation, which she questioned throughout her work and life. She was a key voice of Second Wave Feminism, and this production immerses us in that world and mindset. It’s like stepping back into the past, which is both interesting and problematic: all the shortcomings of the period are exposed, akin to looking at old photos in which your clothing and hairstyle now seem appalling or ludicrous.
As much as I myself enjoyed Wasserstein’s plays as they emerged, speaking to issues of identity and relationships and personal agency, I find they don’t say as much now. Too often the context feels dated; the awarenesses limited; the issues not so consequential. Even the legendary Wasserstein humor doesn’t always work; the topical cultural references seem too easy. And toward the end of the show, Wasserstein’s intentionally hammy version of “Medea” was delivered, with its comical happy ending––full of visual and verbal clichés, it was, well, sophomoric.
Also, unfortunately, this production was not as technically smooth as the Hangar’s previous one: The streaming was interrupted a few times for all viewers; the sound from some actors’ laptops was often irritatingly tinny; and despite my access to strong internet, the screen image ranged from clear to highly fuzzy. Overall, these pervasive technical challenges alone drastically reduced one’s experience––like trying to listen to a favorite sonata while standing in a drenching rainstorm. And doing that for two-and-a-half hours.
Still, the Hangar is commendably working to bring artists and their voices to us in this taxing time. Equity actors featured were Ben Cherry, Gisela Chipe, Carol Halstead, Laura Heisler, Linda Marie Larson, Manu Narayan and Shona Tucker. Other cast members, many of them new young faces, included Ranana Chernin, Ann Dang, Sirus Desnoes, Lauren Fraites, Miles Gutierrez-Riley, Erin Lockett, Angelica Miguel and Phanesia Pharel. For some, it was their own first exposure to Wasserstein’s work.
It always takes a village to raise a production, and right now that village is nationwide: the actors were joining from across the country––California to New York. Beyond location, as the audience, we come to each show with multiple perspectives and personal histories. My own response is unquestionably conditioned by my lived experiences. I do prefer full productions to excerpts. And these days I’m eager for new voices––so am very much looking forward to the Hangar’s next show, on July 11: Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ “Queens Girl in the World.”
For Hangar productions: Tickets $20, students $10: (607) 273-ARTS
Barbara Adams, a regional theatre and arts writer, teaches writing at Ithaca College.