Wendy Wasserstein, one of the most influential of contemporary American women playwrights, whose richly drawn characters were at the root of comedic works filled with social commentary, died Monday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York after being hospitalized in December with lymphoma. She was 55.
Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best play in 1989 for “The Heidi Chronicles.” Her 1993 play “The Sisters Rosensweig” was a bona fide Broadway hit that has received numerous regional productions. Wasserstein’s latest play, “Third,” premiered recently in a Lincoln Center Theater production at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater starring Dianne Wiest, Jason Ritter and Charles Durning.
“Since her graduation in 1976, Wendy has enriched audiences beyond measure and put her own wholly original stamp on the American theater through artistry and advocacy,” said James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama, where Wasserstein got her playwriting MFA.
A native New Yorker, Wasserstein moved to Manhattan from Brooklyn at age 12. She was a fan of the ballet as a youth but would turn to studying history at Mount Holyoke College and then creative writing at the City College of the City U. of New York.
Wasserstein’s college years; the feminist movement and post-feminist politics; romance, marriage and relationships; and the struggle of women to achieve recognition in male-dominated professional and academic spheres all provided fodder for the trenchant humor and sharp-eyed observations of Wasserstein’s best plays.
Her first play, “Any Woman Can’t,” was produced Off Broadway in 1973 by Playwrights Horizons. After that production, she entered Yale’s School of Drama, collaborating in 1977 with her playwriting contemporary Christopher Durang on scripts for the Yale Cabaret group. A year after Wasserstein completed her master’s in 1976, her play “Uncommon Women and Others” was produced by the Phoenix Theater Company at the Marymount Manhattan Theater.
Her first major success came in 1983, when the Phoenix staged a revamped version of her 1981 play “Isn’t It Romantic.” On its second go-round, it played 733 performances.
Returning to Playwrights Horizons in 1986, she began work on “The Heidi Chronicles.” After a successful opening in 1988, it moved to the Plymouth Theater and won the Tony, Pulitzer, New York Drama Critics Circle Prize, the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
Wasserstein’s next Broadway outing, “The Sisters Rosensweig,” opened in March 1993, nabbed five Tony noms and ran for 556 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.
Earlier this month the California troupe Theatreworks indefinitely delayed the scheduled spring premiere of the new children’s tuner “Pamela’s First Musical,” for which Wasserstein wrote the book, due to the scribe’s illness.
She wrote the screenplay for “The Object of My Affection,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, and librettos for the operas “Central Park” and “The Merry Widow.”
Wasserstein also adapted her plays “An American Daughter,” “Uncommon Women and Others” and “The Heidi Chronicles” for television productions.
Her essay collections include “Bachelor Girls,” published in 1991, and 2001’s “Shiksa Goddess.” Her first novel, “Elements of Style,” will be published by Knopf Publishing Group in May.
Wasserstein is survived by a daughter, her mother, brother and sister.
Donations may be made to the “Open Doors” program of the Theater Development Fund at 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
(David Rooney and Gordon Cox in New York contributed to this report.)