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Wasserstein, an 'uncommon woman'

Wendy Wasserstein, who did more than any Broadway playwright of her generation to increase the visibility of women on the American stage, died yesterday at age 55.

The cause was complications from lymphoma, according to Lincoln Center Theater, which produced her most recent play, Third, an account of a feminist professor who accuses a student of plagiarism.

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The New York playwright often claimed that the motivation for her first success, Uncommon Women and Others - written as her thesis at the Yale School of Drama - was a desire to see an all-female curtain call at the prestigious graduate school.

The play, which explores the aspirations of several women's college alumnae, opened off-Broadway in 1977 starring Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry and Swoosie Kurtz. It launched a three-decade career during which Wasserstein created a new breed of protagonist - smart, witty women struggling to forge their identities in a culture more accustomed to seeing them play supporting roles, both on stage and off. It also helped propel the careers of many young actresses, including her Yale classmate Meryl Streep, who appeared in a televised version, which aired on PBS.

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Calling Wasserstein "truly the most uncommon woman" she knew, Kurtz said yesterday, "Nobody was even close to her, even remotely like her. She was just a personality and a voice like no other."

Kurtz, who appeared in the first staged reading of Uncommon Women at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., added, "I think [her influence] will continue to resonate and grow exponentially over the years. I think she's opened so many doors emotionally and career-wise and relationship-wise for women."

Wendy C. Goldberg, artistic director of the O'Neill Playwrights Conference, and a director who worked closely with Wasserstein at Washington's Arena Stage, commented, "Today the American theater has experienced a great loss. Wendy's spirit and enthusiasm, her creation of complex female characters, and her advocacy for the next generation of theater artists and audience have had a strong effect on me both personally and professionally, as well as the theater community and world at large."

Although Wasserstein's plays were suffused with humor, there was always a serious note underlying the comedy. In The Heidi Chronicles, which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award, an art history professor undergoes a crisis when, despite the promises of the women's movement, she suddenly feels trapped. "I thought the whole point was not to feel stranded," Heidi says.

Throughout her career, Wasserstein worked to expand options for women. Jackson R. Bryer, professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and author of The Playwright's Art, brought her to College Park two years ago to work with students. "She did an incredible amount of speaking to groups all over the country - the kind of thing she certainly didn't have to do. And she always used to say that the reason she did it was because Wendy never came to her school, meaning that there were no role models for her to be a successful playwright when she was in high school or college," said Bryer.

"She never wanted to be known as a woman playwright, as a representative of her sex, but the truth of the matter was that she was one of the principal reasons that women are now among the most prominent dramatists writing today."

Paula Vogel, Wasserstein's contemporary and a fellow Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, echoed Bryer's sentiments about Wasserstein's generosity to aspiring theater artists. "As an educator and somebody in the field worrying about the next generation, her impact was huge, and it's that that I'm very sad about," said Vogel, a professor of playwriting at Brown University.

Vogel, who appeared on numerous panels and committees with Wasserstein over the years, said she particularly recalled a panel of diverse female playwrights, each of whom Wasserstein persuaded to wear ties "because it would be the thing we would all have in common."

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In her understated way, Wasserstein was a daring playwright. Her 1992 Broadway hit, The Sisters Rosensweig, was about three middle-aged Jewish sisters in London. The play's title and structure owed a debt to Chekhov, her favorite playwright, and the Broadway cast was headed by Jane Alexander, Frances McDormand and the late Madeline Kahn.

But the subject matter and characters were hardly the makings of a sure-fire smash. "If I went to a movie studio and said, 'I want to do a movie about three sisters, and the oldest one is 54 and she falls in love with a furrier' - I don't think so," Wasserstein acknowledged in a 1994 interview with The Sun.

Wasserstein was the youngest of five children born to a textile manufacturer and a mother who danced avocationally. Her mother enrolled her in dance classes as a young child. After each Saturday class, she would accompany her parents to a Broadway matinee. But though her maternal grandfather performed in and wrote for the Yiddish theater, the self-deprecating playwright quipped in a speech at a 1993 Baltimore fundraiser, "My mother never said, 'Honey, darling, please grow up to be a playwright and put off marriage as much as possible.'"

Two years after graduating from Mount Holyoke College (where Uncommon Women is set), Wasserstein enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, receiving her master's degree in 1976. Uncommon Women debuted at off-Broadway's Phoenix Theater a year later.

In addition to plays, Wasserstein also published three books of essays. The final essay in the second volume, Shiksa Goddess, dealt with the travails of years of fertility treatments, followed by the joys and hardships of becoming, at age 48, a single mother of a prematurely born daughter.

In recent years, Wasserstein quietly fought illnesses, including Bell's palsy, a neurological disorder. In December, she was reported to be battling leukemia, and the premiere of Pamela's First Musical, a musical based on her 1996 children's book of the same name, was indefinitely postponed at California's TheatreWorks. Her first novel, Elements of Style, is to be published by Random House in April.

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A one-act version of Third, her latest off-Broadway play, made its world premiere two years ago at Washington's Theater J. Third was on a double bill with a second Wasserstein piece called Welcome to My Rash, about a middle-aged writer suffering from a bizarre, increasingly debilitating set of symptoms. Many of those symptoms, says Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, were also suffered by Wasserstein, and Welcome to My Rash has not had any subsequent productions.

"Wendy was sensitive to her public image, and she did not want people knowing that she was sick. So that play was a gift to the few people who really experienced it in D.C.," said Roth.

A middle-aged playwright himself, Roth heralded Wasserstein yesterday saying, "Of our baby boom generation, she was the first female playwright to play with the big boys. She wanted to be a Broadway writer. She had the chops to do it. She wanted to speak for herself and a generation of women, and she had the muscle and the stature of any of the leading male playwrights of her generation. And she was the only one of the women in their 40s and 50s right now who had that stature. She was one of the big boys."

In addition to her daughter, Lucy Jane, Wasserstein is survived by her mother, Lola; a sister, Georgette Levis; and two brothers, Bruce, chairman of the investment bank Lazard and owner of New York magazine, and Abner. (Another sister, Sandra Meyer, died in 1998.)

Funeral services will be private, but a memorial will be held at Lincoln Center at a later date.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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Works by Wendy Wasserstein

Plays

Uncommon Women and Others (1977)

Isn't It Romantic (1981), revised (1983)

The Heidi Chronicles (1989)

The Sisters Rosensweig (1992)

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An American Daughter (1997)

Old Money (2000)

Third (2005)

Books of essays

Bachelor Girls (1990)

Shiksa Goddess (2001)

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Sloth (2005)

Novels

Elements of Style (2006)

Children's books

Pamela's First Musical (1996)

Screenplays

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The Object of My Affection (1998)[Associated Press]



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