An American Daughter, by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Evan Cabnet. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Jason Danielly, Kelly Bishe, Richard Poe, Stephen Kunken, Roe Hartrampf, Deborah Rush, Diane Davis; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"How can anyone be depressed when there are so many cheeses
in the world?"
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein wrote, "The real reason for comedy is to hide the pain." In her play, "An American Daughter," now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, she uses comedy to do just that until she can no longer manipulate pain in that way and it emerges dramatically full-blown. A woman, well-respected on all sides, is crushed by public opinion when a close friend almost accidentally reveals a secret that shouldn’t hurt anyone, but in the circumstances Lyssa Dent Hughes is engulfed in, it takes on mammoth proportions and threatens to destroy her completely. Written in 1997, this Broadway flop is one of the most relevant plays to be seen this season, mirroring, as it does, our current political situation. Just like Hillary Clinton, Lyssa apologizes for a mistake and finds herself the target of the media, the masses and those closest and dearest to her.
The original play survived only 89 performances at the Cort Theatre in New York. The show was peopled with the finest talents imaginable: Kate Nelligan as Lyssa, Peter Riegert as her husband, Lynne Thigpen as Judith (she won a TONY Award for this role), Hal Holbrook as Lyssa’s father and Penny Fuller as her stepmother; Elizabeth Marvel as her romantic rival and Cotter Smith as the TV reporter who outs her for her minor crime. Daniel Sullivan directed and the play was produced by Lincoln Center Theatre; the finest production team designed the show. This was Wasserstein’s eighth play (out of eleven) following her mega-hits "The Heidi Chronicles" and "The Sisters Rosensweig." Everything sang of success and yet it failed.
Seeing it today one has to wonder why, what happened, went wrong. The production in Williamstown leaves no doubt that this is great theater, the best political play since Gore Vidal’s "The Best Man." It’s a play better than most that followed which had longer runs. It was made into a television movie starring Christine Lahti and Tom Skerritt in 2000 with Thigpen repeating her stage role as Judith. Lahti was nominated for a Golden Globe award for it and the screenplay, much expanded from the stage play, was by Wasserstein herself.
"It’s amazing how quick opinions change," says one of the characters and that, I trust, is what this production will do: change public opinion about this play. As someone who sees just about everything in the region, "An American Daughter" has skyrocketed into the top spot for straight plays this summer and this has been a very good season.
Diane Davis is the charming but besieged Lyssa Dent Hughes whose nomination as Surgeon General of the United States is hers for the taking until her one and only minor secret is revealed and she makes a disastrous mistake in a response about her mother. Davis is generally excellent, although there are moments when it is hard to hear her. She brings a non-sentimental sense to Lyssa who undergoes castigation, personal betrayal on several levels, condemnation by the nation of women whose concerns she whole-heartedly supports, and the uneasy support of her Senator father. Davis makes all of these things less horrific and more real than she might have and it works to the benefit of the play. She is playing a strong woman who will not be broken and when she comes close to that place, she finds her own way through the mess around her and literally makes lemonade out of the enormous lemon her life has become. Davis gives the role humanity and strength and perseverance. It is a delicately manifest performance.
Her best friend, Judith Kaufman, is played with beauty and a staggering vulnerability by Saidah Arrika Ekulona who almost walks away with the play. The author has conveniently kept her appearances to a minimum or there would be exit ovations every time she leaves the stage. Ekulona adds the depth of friendship to the stage-works mixture and gives the show a certain religious heft and heart when it needs it most.
Stephen Kunken is playing Walter Abrahmson, Lyssa’s husband, to perfection. He is sensitive and strong when needed, yet open to hurt and distrust when it is appropriate. As his best friend, Morrow McCarthy, Roe Hartrampf is a delicious example of the late 1990s image of a successful homosexual. In their scenes together there is an easy camaraderie that would not have been expected in its own time but today plays out like Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook on a talk show, a gay man with a mission who can easily overstep the boundaries, but probably not intentionally. When Walter confronts his friend, when Lyssa confronts him, or Judith confronts him McCarthy, in Hartrampf’s hands, shows us what a man really is.
Jason Danielly plays the TV talk-show host and reporter who cannot stop himself from using a minor detail to stir up a scandal and boost his ratings. He is refreshingly real in the role and while you want to like him, you just have to hate him. The author wants it that way and no amount of charm or good looks will prevent the anger from rising. The second devilish reporter is Walter’s top-grade former student Quincy Quince, played by Kerry Bishé. This actress can play both sides of an ideal at the same time and make it work. She is seductive, wholesome and as phony as a three-dollar bill all at the same time.
Richard Poe plays Senator Hughes and Deborah Rush is his fourth wife "Chubby". They are a wonderful pair with Rush leading the honors saying the most bizarre things and making them believable. Poe’s projection of warmth is exactly right as the Senator has little warmth to give. Rush’s presentation of aid and comfort is restricted in Wasserstein’s words to advice from the "word to the wise" style columnists, pure pap and very little use. That both actors can make their characters endearing is a tribute to the talent on stage. In the limited role of political advisor Billy Robbins, Will Pullen does some excellent work.
Evan Cabnet, directing this group of players and the rest of this large company takes Wasserstein’s own words to heart in his work "The real reason for comedy is to hide the pain." In this play, under his gentle guiding hand (and I suppose under his typing fingers making minor update changes to the script), the statement ranks 100% in sincerity. He uses the fun in her words to make us like these people so much and when things begin to go sour he turns the pace down a bit and lets the dramatic reality encroach on the comedy. Cabnet shows us the downside of Lyssa’s life with the same clarity he uses to expose the lighter side.
Derek McLane’s superb set is the perfect setting for the gem of a play Cabnet puts into it. Jessica Pabst’s costumes belie the period of the play and make the look so contemporary without screaming it that if we don’t pay careful attention it could be 2016 we’re watching and not 1997. Ben Stanton’s reality lighting is well-tuned to the production. When we reach the final scene and words change into words we hear daily on MSNBC or CNN or FOX News, the true ramification of the story becomes clear. We are watching the piece-by-piece demolition by an avaricious press of our famous and treasured democracy. It’s like we are now insiders on the Washington merry-go-round running out control.
Was Wendy Wasserstein a prophet? I begin to think she was, and that her play was just ahead of its time saying things we weren’t ready to buy into twenty years ago. Now we have another chance to hear the message and reverse the trend. At least I hope we do, and hope we will. That’s what I took away from the theater this time: not a tune to sing but a prayer to recite.
Diane Davis; photo: Daniel Rader
Roe Hartrampf and Saidah Arrika Ekulona; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Deborah Rush; photo: T. Charles Erickson
An American Daughter plays through August 21 on the mainstage at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For tickets and information about this Williamstown Theatre Festival production, call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go online at wtfestival.org.