By Wendy Wasserstein
Directed by Melinda Lopez
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage
At the BCA Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, through October 31, 1998

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Wendy Wasserstein's most recent play, hailed as a turn toward the overtly political by a comic writer who has marked out the intersection between rapidly shifting social constraints and women's personal fulfillment as her particular territory, has turned up on a Boston stage in record time after its New York closing, thanks to SpeakEasy Stage.  Melinda Lopez directs, and her production has all the virtues associated with SpeakEasy-- a gorgeous and totally appropriate set by Eric Levenson, elegant lighting by Karen Perlow,  rounded detailed characterizations by an attractive cast, a comfortable sense of ensemble, and a generous guiding sensibility that grants every character  its own point of view and its humane dollop of audience empathy.  Well, there is one exception in Billy Robbins ( George Saulnier) , an insufferable young conservative spinmeister the liberal heroine borrows from her Republican father's senatorial campaign staff. Robbins is just a target for jokes.  But the rest of the characters come across as more likable than not, and  I certainly enjoyed the time I spent with Speakeasy's version of them.  Wasserstein's script is knitted with witty lines, and I laughed at a few and smiled at most of the others. This was a pleasant surprise-- because when I first read the script, I couldn't bear the tone of voice I thought I detected in all these people: their condescending cleverness, their casual greed,  their clan loyalty, their gigantic sense of entitlement that reacts with shock--shock!-- when not all the losers they've passed on their way up regard them with humble admiration.  The Speakeasy cast made these elitists accessible, ordinary and vulnerable enough to draw us lesser mortals in to the characters' charmed circle and make us care what happens to them.  Unfortunately, in Wasserstein's play, nothing does.

Lyssa Dent Hughes is the bleeding heart Democrat daughter of a very senior Republican senator from Indiana,  a descendent of U.S. Grant; and has just been nominated for Surgeon General of the US.  Lyssa believes in being both very competent and very nice. Her mother died when she was young, but even before that she was definitely Daddy's Girl, making him proud, going through her life working hard, passing exams, while being so personable, so considerate, so gracefully conformable to the norms of whatever group she chose to enter, that she has been awarded almost all the prizes America has on offer.  Lyssa has a medical degree, fashionable clothes (by Anne Dunne) that flatter her trim figure; a smart, loving, tenured professor (Jerry Bizantz) for a husband, and two agreeable kids; an important hospital job at a considerable salary; honors and offices in civic and professional organizations.  Lyssa's a successful version of Willy Loman-- well off and well liked.  She's not to be shown up as deluded or fraudulent, not her.  Wasserstein likes Lyssa, and expects the audience to like her, too, and to agree that in a just world an almost perfect woman like Lyssa should "have it all".   Amazingly, Sheila Stasack manages to project near perfection yet remain a character most people would be happy to have as a colleague or friend.  This, not bad judgment or the attraction of opposites, goes quite a way to explain the oddities of Lyssa's inner circle.

Lyssa's closest friend is Judith, high school chum, college room mate, and fellow physician. Judith's also black, Jewish, overweight, earthy, flamboyant, divorced, resentful, and so obsessed with bearing a child and with the humiliating infertility treatments she's gone through to get one that she deserves a play of her own to work all this out.  All the other characters remark on how angry Judith is, but most of her frustration and rage is boiled off in jokes, stand-up routines that slam her enemies and shaggy dog stories in which she is the abject object of her own derision. Fulani Haynes ' performance softens this character and dissipates Judith's rage-energy, but Haynes makes the friendship with Lyssa believable and is certainly good company.  Less believable is Lyssa's friendship with the gay conservative pundit Morrow McCarthy ( Barlow Adamson).  One can see why Morrow might enjoy running tame in the cozy household, and his bitchy wit is entertaining, but if Lyssa were serious about her political career she would take steps to contain Morrow-- he's a loose cannon.  Lyssa also has an amazing  bond with her father's recent bride, wife number four (Peggy Malloy), although that woman's values are very different from Lyssa's feminist liberalism.  Michael J. Farrell is as charming as Lyssa's father the senator would have to be to be where he is for as long as he's been there, and Farrell and Stasack manage to suggest all sorts of unspoken depths beneath their relationship's smooth and affectionate surface.  The depths beneath Lyssa's relationship with her husband Walter, however, are unfathomable.  Walter's a nice guy, one of the nicest and most supportive around -- but he's the one who lets slip the tidbit of information the enemies of Lyssa's nomination will use to bring her down.  Walter's a charismatic college teacher who seems never to have been involved with any of his devoted students -- yet he kisses his famous ex-student Quincy Quince (Caroline Lawton), a 20-something neo-feminist of the aggressive do-me sort who has risen to media stardom on the strength of her critique of old-line feminists like Lyssa, in his own living room  Walter does the kissing right beyond the door where his wife is serving lunch and trying to impress television personality/investigative reporter  Timber Tucker with her happy and wholesome family life. Of course, Lyssa comes though the door just in time to catch him: but there's no "of course" about the passive aggressive course Lyssa takes after that-- unfathomed depths indeed.  

One does notice that each of the minor characters shows signs of having originated in sound bites, culled from the public personae of some of our newsmakers, if not, as one suspects with the major ones, directly from life.  Their cute typifying names indicate at least a homage to satirical comedy.   The problem with playing them as caricatures is that Lyssa, nice girl that she is,  really only comes alive in her relationships, and without human beings to bounce off she will wither into nonentity.   John P. Arnold faces the problem in its most exaggerated form in the role of Timber Tucker, and solves it with an astonishing performance.  Reading the script, I thought Lyssa would have to be unbelievably stupid to trust an obvious slime ball like Timber Tucker.  He is up front about the amorality of his interviewing techniques, and jokes about his other defects of character. How could an intelligent woman trust such a man enough to tell him her real thoughts about anything?- Especially after Tucker plays "gotcha" on the air with Lyssa's confidences the first time.  But John Arnold was so sympathetic, so delicately attuned to Lyssa's inner thoughts, that it seemed impossible for anyone to resist his blandishments.  Arnold then shows Tucker using the same sensitivity to dig at Lyssa where she is most vulnerable and get an on camera reaction that sinks her candidacy while raising his ratings-- and he does it more in sorrow than malice.  Arnold plays it as if it were Tucker's sad fate to exercise this impersonal talent for destruction: a dirty job, but since somebody's going to do it anyway it might as well be him.  This sequence has bite as well as banter, and if there were more scenes like it "An American Daughter" might add up to something.  As is, it adds up to too many things .

There are four or five possible plays buried in "An American Daughter": a family sitcom, a social satire, an adultery farce, a harrowing melodrama, a domestic tragedy, and -- the one this script comes nearest to becoming-- a play about the painful self knowledge sometimes acquired when, tempted by a glittering prize, a person of stature betrays herself or the people she loves.  What isn't buried in the play is much potential for political significance.   Nothing serious is at stake in "An American Daughter" for anybody outside Lyssa Dent Hughes' immediate circle.  It makes no difference to the body politic whether or not Lyssa is appointed Surgeon General.  She's not a ceiling busting first like Joycelyn Elders,  nor does Dr. Hughes have a power base with an agenda that her confirmation would integrate into the mainstream of our political culture. The woman has been active in professional associations, but other than her advocacy of abortion rights and her conviction that more tax money should be funneled to her medical specialty, gynecology-- both of which she is willing to downplay for the sake of congressional approval-- what is there about Lyssa Hughes that would make her confirmation worth a fight, worth sacrifice?  The fact that if she were a man, she'd be held to a lower standard? Ha!  No man as passive and politically uninvolved as Lyssa is shown to be would ever be considered for such an office. Even for Lyssa herself, the public humiliation of her withdrawal is much ado about nothing.  She is the same private person at the end of act two she was when the lights went up--  wife, mother, doctor, do-gooder, daddy's dutiful little trooper-- born entitled but always doing her best to be the best at somebody else's game.