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BOOK REVIEW

Playwright’s biography sets scenes but fails to explore

An authorized biography of Wendy Wasserstein takes an unsympathetic look at the life of the playwright. An authorized biography of Wendy Wasserstein takes an unsympathetic look at the life of the playwright.
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / August 26, 2011

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It was a suburban restaurant where Wendy Wasserstein stopped for lunch with a friend one day in 2002, on her way home from the hospital where she was being treated for a rare form of leukemia. That the playwright was undergoing chemotherapy was unknown to nearly everyone who loved her, let alone to the strangers who approached her table to gush about her work.

Popular celebrity is rare among American dramatists, but this sort of thing happened all the time to Wasserstein, who embodied the struggles and successes of privileged baby boom women, of Jewish New York daughters, of rumpled high achievers who couldn’t seem to find love.

“People she didn’t know would stop her on the street and greet her, not with starstruck awe but with familiarity,’’ Julie Salamon writes in “Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein,’’ her remarkably unsympathetic authorized biography.

The youngest child of Eastern European immigrants who prospered here, Wasserstein grew up comfortably first in Brooklyn, then on the Upper East Side. When she went off to school it was to Mount Holyoke College, then the Yale School of Drama in the Robert Brustein era. In 1977, a year out of Yale, she put herself on the theatrical radar with “Uncommon Women and Others’’; by the late ’80s, she was a Broadway darling.

A Pulitzer Prize winner for her 1988 comedy, “The Heidi Chronicles,’’ Wasserstein delineated the longings and ambitions of a generation in flux. She was 55 when she died in 2006, the single mother of 6-year-old Lucy Jane, whose dangerously premature entrance into the world she had detailed in The New Yorker.

In her plays, too, Wasserstein used her life as raw material, sometimes just barely disguised. But like most of us, she preferred to retain control of the narrative of her own experience. Even in her most intimate friendships, she told only the stories she wanted to tell; there was no one to whom she divulged everything. And, creature of the theater that she was, she had a mutable notion of the truth.

In an essay in last Sunday’s New York Times, Salamon wrote that “maybe secrecy and privacy have become too easily conflated.’’ But in the biography, which yearns to be a lurid tell-all, she is plainly put off by Wasserstein’s desire to keep private matters - such as her illness and the identity of Lucy Jane’s father - private. Salamon hammers away at her “lumpy,’’ “dumpy’’ subject’s penchant for secrecy, portraying it as a near-pathological habit instilled by Wasserstein’s mother, Lola, the villain of the book.

Sketching the playwright’s life in undistinguished prose, Salamon doesn’t do much to explore either the import of Wasserstein’s feminist trailblazing or the contradictions within it. Meryl Streep, who had known the playwright since they were students at Yale, tells Salamon she never understood why Wasserstein, in the biographer’s paraphrase, “consistently deferred in conversation to men.’’ Salamon mentions this nearly three-quarters of the way through the book, then doesn’t consider the idea any further.

She also doesn’t make clear how the über-accomplished men in Wasserstein’s life could be considered lost boys. Among her close male friends were playwright Christopher Durang, with whom she bonded instantly at Yale; Lincoln Center Theater artistic director André Bishop, with whom she contemplated marriage, despite his being gay; Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long, with whom she tried, platonically, to conceive a child; and playwright Terrence McNally, who is also gay and initiated a romance with her at the panic-stricken height of the AIDS crisis.

The one unambiguously lost boy in this tale is Wasserstein’s brother Abner, who was institutionalized before she was born and largely erased from the family narrative. Wasserstein’s other brother, Bruce, who died in 2009, was a billionaire investment banker. One senses that he intrigued Salamon more than his little sister did.

A former reporter who spoke with many of Wasserstein’s relatives and friends, Salamon displays not a dramatist’s ability to climb inside her characters’ skin but a journalist’s capacity to empathize with her interview subjects. Wasserstein, being dead, wasn’t available for a chat. “Wendy and the Lost Boys’’ would be a better book if she had been.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS:

The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

By Julie Salamon

Penguin, 460 pp., illustrated, $29.95