Julie Salamon gave us what is probably the best book ever written about the production of a movie — “The Devil’s Candy” — and you can now read the paperback edition of her terrific 20111 glimpse into the New York theater scene of the past 40 years, “Wendy and the Lost Boys” (The Penguin Press).
The book is a biography of Pulitzer Prize-winner Wendy Wasserstein — she was named after the character in “Peter Pan” — but the late playwright had connections to so many key New York stage figures that it has a much broader scope than you might think.
After fending off pressure from her upper middle class Brooklyn parents to become a lawyer, Wasserstein came into her own when she decided to attend the Yale School of Drama in the early 1970s.
Wasserstein arrived in one of the starriest groups of students ever to attend that institution — her peers included Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang.
The writer was frustrated at Yale because Dean Robert Brustein didn’t really like her work — she was too funny and warm and slick — but Wasserstein got a big boost when “Uncommon Women and Others” was chosen by the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.
The play was the hit of the O’Neill summer of 1977 — with a cast of semi-unknowns on the way up that included Swoosie Kurtz — and it quickly moved into New York for an acclaimed off-Broadway run and then was taped for the PBS “Theater in America” series. Meryl Streep appeared in the TV special, along with Jill Eikenberry and Kurtz.
Wasserstein’s tale of a group of baby boomer Mount Holyoke grads looking back at their college days five years earlier struck a chord with audiences in their late 20s and the writer would spend the rest of career charting her generation’s foibles in plays like “The Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosensweig.”
Salamon shows how the writer was able to deftly fictionalize her own life, but in a way that large audiences could identify with. She knew which aspects of her existence would strike universal chords.
The writer became affiliated with Playwrights Horizons just as it was being started by Andre Bishop — she followed him as he moved up the ladder to Lincoln Center Theater. Wasserstein’s two biggest hits, “Heidi ” and “Rosensweig” were produced by Bishop.
Wasserstein befriended Frank Rich just before he became the most powerful critic in the city at The New York Times. As Salamon points out, Rich never reviewed his friend’s plays, but with his backing she became one of the most frequently written about theater figures in The Times.
The playwright had a gift for friendship, but she often got into trouble when her many friends and acquaintances thought they were her “best friend.” “Lost Boys” shows us that even rich and famous people hold on to high school ideas of interpersonal relationships well into middle-age.
Wasserstein was never able to find Mr. Right and entered into a series of disastrous quasi-romantic relationships with men she knew were gay, including Bishop, Durang, and the costume designer William Ivey Long.
Things got even more tense with Wendy’s “lost boys” when she decided she wanted to have a baby via artificial insemination and asked some of these gay men to be sperm donors.
Wasserstein wrote the charming 1998 romantic comedy “The Object of My Affection” (below), in which a straight woman played by Jennifer Aniston dreamed of raising a child with a gay friend (Paul Rudd). Salamon shows us that the movie, like Wasserstein’s plays, was more than a little bit autobiographical.
The writer died tragically young — at the age of 56 — but not before making an indelible impression on audiences all over the country. Wasserstein was one of the very few writers of her generation who had her plays produced with great success on Broadway — she picked up the baton that Neil Simon had held for the previous 30 years.