By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Wendy Wasserstein wrote An American Daughter more than a decade before Hillary Rodham Clinton's election to the Senate and her push toward the presidency, before Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House. Condoleezza Rice, as the newly appointed Stanford University provost, wasn't yet a major political power player in 1993, when Wasserstein's play premiered, to tepid reviews, at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage. If the playwright had known then what we know now about women who rise to the highest echelons of government, An American Daughter might be one bitchin' great piece of theater.
But alas, it is not getting a very polished community theater production at Irving's ICT Mainstage, where the lass at the center of the play is based not on a Clinton, Pelosi or Rice, but on Zoe Baird. She was President Bill Clinton's nominee for attorney general once upon a time, forced to withdraw from consideration after it was revealed that she'd used undocumented workers in her home. The resulting "Nannygate" headlines deep-sixed Baird's political aspirations and served as a warning to all up-and-coming women in politics that the media and party opposition would seize on whatever foibles, large or small, they could turn up in search of exploitable scandal.
In An American Daughter, the woman in question is Lyssa Dent Hughes (played by Mary-Margaret Pyeatt), an unnamed president's nominee for surgeon general. She looks like a perfect choice: outspoken M.D. specializing in women's health issues, wife of an esteemed academic, mother of two, daughter of a longtime senator and fifth-generation descendant of Ulysses S. Grant. Lyssa still finds time to fold her own laundry in her pretty Georgetown home, and she counts as her best friend a liberal three-fer in the person of Dr. Judith B. Kaufman (Laura Warner), who is black, Jewish and probably lesbian.
Visit to a Small Planet continues through March 31 at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, 214-821-1860.
In a series of Sunday brunches, we watch Lyssa's thrill at her nomination turn to shrill on-air showdown with a smarmy TV reporter named Timber Tucker (Chip Wood). He has picked up on something Lyssa's gay, politically conservative friend Morrow McCarthy (David Meglino) has let slip: Years before, Lyssa skipped out on jury duty.
Given the much greater sins that have hounded political figures recently—U.S. Representative Mark Foley's resignation over sexy e-mails to teenage pages, Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham's imprisonment for bribery and corruption, "Scooter" Libby's guilty verdict in the Plame case—misplacing a jury summons would hardly rate a mention on a Fox News screen crawl. Or perhaps it was Wasserstein's assertion that even something this trivial can tarnish a woman's political career because women are held to a different standard. That stray remark Hillary made about not staying home and baking cookies, back when Bill was running for prez the first time, has come back to haunt her time and again.
Wasserstein, who died last year at age 55, was a feminist always on the side of smart women; it's how she made her bones in the New York theater. Her best works, The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig, feature brainy women saying wise and funny things, and they grew out of Wasserstein's own life as a Yale-educated, unmarried sister-friend among Manhattan's power elite. An American Daughter is something different from her, a play written by Wasserstein as mediaphile, as Charlie Rose fanatic upset at the mishigas around Baird's nomination. She tried for biting commentary about the biases that held women like Baird back when they came anywhere close to busting into the boys' room. But the result is Designing Women Go to Washington, all quick quips and foot-stamping indignation amid windy speeches about reproductive rights. Lyssa isn't a feminist defeated unfairly but a lightweight who doesn't fight back.
The targets here are pretty obvious too. Morrow is a cartoon Andrew Sullivan, the gay Republican commentator. The name Timber Tucker suggests NBC's Stone Phillips as inspiration, though the character's awful questions during a long TV interview sequence with Lyssa hint at a Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. Feminist author and husband-seducer Quincy Quince (Stephanie Hall) combines Naomi Wolf's flirty neo-feminism with Ann Coulter's media whoriness.
As the play unfolds, brunch by brunch, it's hard not to wonder why a lady as bright as Lyssa would allow these creeps into her well-appointed living room. Under intense media fire, would Lyssa really welcome Timber back for a second and third go-round in front of cameras? And with her husband (Dennis Canright), senator-father (Harry Reinwald), his fourth wife "Chubby" (the delightful Connie Lane) and the despicable Quincy and Morrow present and miked?
With all that keeping An American Daughter from reaching Rosensweigian heights, the ICT cast, directed by Coy Covington, does do some fine work keeping it all as light as possible. Pyeatt looks like a thinner Joan Allen, if that's even possible, and brings a nice twinkle to the starchy Lyssa. Warner makes a marvelously warm and funny Dr. Judith. Canright, who also designed the attractively furnished living room setting, does right by the husband role, though it's hard to understand why his character would suddenly be snogging the icky Quincy while his wife hovers nearby. As media slut Quincy, Stephanie Hall wisely keeps the focus on her shapely legs to detract from her terrible speaking voice and mushy diction. Giving underplayed, and therefore highly enjoyable, performances as the old senator and his latest wife, Reinwald and Lane light up the room just by being in it.