One of the last great hurrahs of the Phoenix Theater, the 1977 premiere of Wendy Wasserstein’s “Uncommon Women and Others” was a happy matching of a new writer with a gifted director and an amazing cast, all for a play that seemed to distill the conflicts and uncertainties of its time into a memorable blend of raunchy wit and sober apprehension. Much of that company would soon head West — including director Steven Rothman and actors Swoosie Kurtz, Glenn Close and Jill Eikenberry — and by 1982 the Phoenix was a memory. But with “Uncommon Women,” a new voice in the theater had an extraordinary debut.
Seventeen years later, in a revival that kicks off the season for the Second Stage, “Uncommon Women and Others” still packs considerable emotional punch. But since an American Playhouse tape of the Phoenix production (with Meryl Streep replacing Close) received wide public TV exposure, comparisons are inevitable.
Carole Rothman’s desultory staging makes an unflattering case for the play: What seemed — and still reads — as razor-sharp and pungent comes across the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theater as dated. And in these less-than-secure hands, the play is revealed for exactly what it is: a promising freshman effort of a major talent.
“Uncommon Women” shifts in time between a reunion of five women and their days as students at Mount Holyoke College in the early 1970s. Daughters of privilege, and second-generation feminists, they’re women on the verge of everything: jobs, lovers, political clout, financial independence. In the school scenes, they face those possibilities with a mixture of insecurity and brazenness.
Holly (Julie Dretzin) makes desperate long-distance calls to a man she encountered at a museum. Rita (Jessica Lundy) shocks people with the news that she has tasted her menstrual blood and wonders how long it may take the others to reach that exploratory peak.
But even in these protected environs, they know that much of feminist progress is a sham, that it’s still a man’s world and that their prospects are limited — as their reunion scenes reveal. Successful or not, the women are disappointed, as if the movement had fundamentally failed each of them.
This theme runs through all of Wasserstein’s work, and it sometimes rings hollow, not only because a man’s world is also full of compromise, but because it ignores women of this generation who have balanced personal and professional fulfillment.
The veteran actors in the current company have all been seen to much better effect. The comedic and darker moments often fall flat. Even Heidi Landesman’s atypically somber setting works against the play. The only bright spot is Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes, and guess what? She did the same for the original “Uncommon Women.”