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Artistic themes come to life in Wasserstein's 'Heidi Chronicles'


You might think of them as parallel voids: Art history virtually ignores women artists, and Broadway virtually ignores plays by and about women.

Then Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles" comes along and attempts to remedy both situations at once.

Granted, the play -- currently at the Kennedy Center -- is episodic and a bit ragged structurally, and it has an ending that undoubtedly sets the teeth of hard-core feminists on edge. But Ms. Wasserstein has observed her generation of women with accuracy and wit.

Spanning 25 years, the play follows art historian Heidi Holland through the first full flowering of the feminist movement. Heidi's specialty is images of women in art, but she shrinks from the term "feminist," insisting her interpretation is humanist instead.

She is the perpetual wallflower at the rally, a quality actress Stephanie Dunnam conveys so effectively that she verges on blandness. However, Ms. Dunnam handles the age range convincingly; she matures before our eyes.

It helps that director Daniel Sullivan keeps the pace lively -- no small task considering that, whether the scene is a high school mixer or a women's consciousness-raising group, Heidi retains the same static pose on the sidelines.

Though Heidi prefers to be merely an observer, her friends are movers and shakers, and, interestingly, the most loyal among them are men. (One shortcoming is that most of the secondary female characters are little more than caricatures, played by the same three multiply cast actresses.)

Heidi's dearest friend is a homosexual pediatrician, played by Robert Curtis-Brown, who successfully embodies the character's disparate traits of gentleness and cynicism. However, Mark Harelik as Heidi's former boyfriend -- a magazine publisher purported to be both arrogant and charismatic -- overdoes the arrogance and all but obliterates the charisma.

In the final scene, Heidi adopts a baby, and for all its supposed modernity, the play closes with the same old-fashioned hope for the next generation expounded by parents throughout time.

But in this case, perhaps there is cause for optimism.

Four years ago, the National Museum of Women in the Arts opened in Washington. Earlier this year, H. W. Janson's "History of Art," one of the most influential college texts, was revised to include numerous women artists. And so the lecture on obscure women artists that Heidi delivers in the opening scene is already partially obsolete.

And in 1989, "The Heidi Chronicles" -- a play by and about a woman -- won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but it does mean this play has done something rare -- it has realized one of its own themes.

'The Heidi Chronicles'

When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through April 28.

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.

Tickets: $28-$38.50.

Call: (202) 467-4600.


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