After having a baby, what's a playwright to do?

Pulitzer Prize winner Wendy Wasserstein keeps her writing hand busy with essays.


November 04, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Wendy Wasserstein no longer has a to-do list.

In the preface to her recently published collection of essays, Shiksa Goddess, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright writes: "When I turned 40, I made a To Do list composed mostly of items left over from when I turned 30."

It's not that, at age 51, Wasserstein has finally "done it all," but she has achieved several of those pesky leftover goals. "I have lost a great deal of weight, so I'm thinner, and I have a baby," she explains from her office in New York.

The baby is Lucy Jane, who turned 2 on Sept. 12. Her birth, more than two months premature and at less than 2 pounds, is the subject of the final, touching essay in Shiksa Goddess.

Lucy is also one of the main subjects of Wasserstein's conversation on this particular afternoon. "I'm a Jewish mother! Oh, my God," she says. "I used to joke with my mother there was a naches [Yiddish for 'proud pleasure'] invitational at the Fountainbleu Hotel where all the mothers come down to talk about their children. Now there's a whole new generation of us. We look different, but it's the same thing."

A single mother who gave birth after years of fertility treatments and has chosen not to reveal the identity of Lucy's father, Wasserstein eagerly shares some of the tidbits she might impart at such a baby invitational. Lucy's first word, for example, was "cat." "I would like to tell you it was 'book' or 'encyclopedia' -- it was 'Aristotle'! It actually was 'cat,' " she says, adding that her household includes two cats.

An altered life

Then there's Lucy's schooling, which has already begun, at the Barnard Toddler Center. "We're two generations of Seven Sisters School women," says Wasserstein, who turned her experiences at Mount Holyoke College into fodder for her 1975 play, Uncommon Women and Others.

Having a baby has radically altered Wasserstein's life and work routine. "My writing day used to go all through the day." Now, she says, "It has to be slightly more disciplined because there's only so many hours I can do it, and then I want to see Lucy."

She still tries to spend four hours a day writing, but she does it at an office 10 blocks from her West Side apartment. "If I can spend time alone and write, I do feel in touch with myself. If I don't, I just think, where's Wendy gone?"

Though she doesn't feel ready to write a play about motherhood, Wasserstein says the experience "makes me want to write about my own family. ... I would like [Lucy] to know about it from my point of view before she starts writing about me."

Essays not only provide a quick writing fix between plays, they also allow her to write about subjects she might not want to deal with on stage. "Plays take me a long time to write and then to get on," she explains. "In writing an essay, there's a beginning, middle and an end. The essay about Lucy Jane was a way to put the experience in some perspective. I couldn't have put that in a play. It's almost as if I had to blurt it out. In some ways, it ordered it for me. I think writing essays has given me almost an eye, an observer's eye, that has helped in playwriting."

Shiksa Goddess is Wasserstein's second essay collection and contains essays previously published in such national publications as Harper's Bazaar, The New York Times and Vogue. In the title essay (reprinted from The New Yorker), Wasserstein comes clean about her Episcopal heritage -- a mock revelation prompted by the sudden discovery of Jewish roots by everyone from Madeleine Albright to Hillary Clinton.

The next-to-last essay, however, "How I Spent My Forties," was written exclusively for the book. It focuses on the 1998 death of her oldest sister, Sandra Meyer (the model for the protagonist in Wasserstein's 1991 play The Sisters Rosensweig) and on the playwright's decision to have a child. That essay and the concluding one, "Days of Awe: The Birth of Lucy Jane," are her favorites.

"I think there's a synthesis in those two essays. What I was trying to build toward is that there is comedic writing that is serious -- even writing about something as profoundly serious as my sister's death or the birth of my child," she says.

Working hard

Besides raising Lucy and promoting Shiksa Goddess -- which she will be doing in Baltimore on Wednesday as the keynote speaker at the 2001 JCC Jewish Book Fair -- Wasserstein is currently writing the book for a Broadway adaptation of the 1951 Gershwin movie musical An American in Paris, to be directed by Jerry Zaks. "I love that I'm collaborating with George and Ira. We sit in a room, me and George and Ira," she says.

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