Girls Gone Mild

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.

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.

Everything about Wendy Wasserstein's plays speaks of sophistication and elegance—not in the Noel Coward, martinis-under-moonlight sense, but in the way of people who use five-syllable words, brunch on pricey nibbles from Zabar's and reminisce about their schooldays back at Miss Porter's, which they shorthand to "Farmington."

There should be something sophisticated and, yes, even a little bit elegant about an evening at the theater too. So why are so many in the audience acting like they're at the rodeo or a drive-in movie?

On opening night of An American Daughter, director Coy Covington passed out cough drops to try to quell the audience's incessant hacking. I moved seats to escape a loud sneezer, then in the quiet moments toward the end of the play, the young woman two seats down began cracking her joints. She started with her finger knuckles, popping them percussively, snap-snap-snap. She moved to her wrists. Pop! Pop! Then, and this is the part that took me completely out of the play, she leaned down, removed her shoes and pulled each of her toe knuckles until their bones loudly snippity-snapped back into place. It was quite a performance of personal chiropractic adjustment. I'm sure they could hear it onstage. I'm sure they could hear it in Waxahachie.

At A Visit to a Small Planet, playing at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, two tables down front were occupied by four men and their bimbotic wives. Between them they shared four pitchers of beer and several of sangria. By the time the performance of Gore Vidal's comedy about a spaceman who visits a 1950s family began, these couples were trashed.

A pre-show announcement reminded that Planet is NOT a popcorn melodrama (the usual audience-interactive fare at PST) and there should be no talking, picture-taking or cluttering of aisles during the show. But all through the first act, the drunky gals down front jabbered and giggled about their hair, nails, handbags and other topics, not giving a flip that the actors a few feet away were trying valiantly to put on a play. The husbands heckled the performers like they were in a comedy club and when I gave them the "Ssshhh," came back with "Shut up, yoursheff!"

Another 15 minutes went by and a group of six arrived, clattered into chairs and tables near the stage and unpacked takeout meals of burgers, chips and canned sodas, which they ate with the gusto of Fourth of July picnickers. Cell phones went off. Ice cubes were crunched. Patrons got up and walked in front of the stage to go to the toilets during the performance.

My heart goes out to the brave band of dedicated thespians in Small Planet—Ramsey Anderson, Lori Z. Cordova, Nick Haley, Tracy Hamblen, Greg Pugh, Michael Roe, Jãd B. Saxton and Daniel White—and at every theater where the audience forgets their manners. The actors have to suck it up and endure the boorishness of the groundlings. I don't.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner