WILLIAMSTOWN — Smart, sophisticated, witty and insightful in her best writing ("The Heidi Chronicles," "Uncommon Women and Others," "The Sisters Rosenzweig"), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein is often her own worst enemy.
The tug of war with her own better instincts are on full display in "An American Daughter" — written in 1997, nine years before her death of lymphoma at age 55 in January 2006 — which is being given a production that is as polished and, ultimately, as hollow as the play itself at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage.
"An American Daughter" is set in the living room of the Georgetown Washington, D.C. home (elegantly designed by Derek McLane) of Lyssa Dent Hughes (Diane Davis) — daughter of a long-serving conservative Republican senator from Indiana and a prominent outspoken liberal professor of public health at Georgetown University — and her husband, Walter (Stephen Kunken), a professor of sociology, also at Georgetown, who is coasting on the success of a definitive, now standard, text, "Toward a Lesser Elite," which he authored five years earlier.
Lyssa has been nominated by the president to become Surgeon General. But what seems like a sure thing threatens to be derailed by the revelation that she skipped jury duty many years earlier, and an off-chance remark during a television interview in which she characterizes her late mother as "an ordinary Indiana housewife who made icebox cake and pimento cream cheese canapes," a remark that unleashes a wave of negative reaction from housewives who feel marginalized, if not diminished.
Wasserstein surrounds Lyssa with an array of characters who, through most of the first act, wear their ideaological identities like designer labels — a former grad student of Walter's, Quincy Quince (an effective Kerry Bushé), a hot, young media celeb who has become the voice of the new generation of feminists; Walter's good friend, Morrow (a somewhat irritating Roe Hartrampf), a gay conservative who winds up crossing the boundaries of friendship; Lyssa's best friend, Judith (a lively and passionate Saidah Arrika Ekulona), a black Jewish oncologist who specializes in breast cancer who also teaches at Georgetown; Lyssa's father's considerably younger new wife, his fourth, named "Chubby" (Deborah Rush), who, despite her ditzy, cotton candy manner, proves to be the most insightful of everyone; Timber Tucker (a believable Jason Danieley), the sympathetic, it turns out, anchor of a television news magazine show, "Time Zone"; her husband, who feels adrift in his own career; and, of course, her father, Senator Allen Hughes (an imposing and graceful Richard Poe), who, after more than four decades in public life, first as mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., then as a leonine figure in the United States Senate, is sensing the encroachment of time and age.
These characters are their ideas and once through the play's by-the-numbers exposition, they debate those ideas ad nauseam, albeit with flawless urbane wit, throughout the first act. Only on occasion — a scene between Walter and Quince and another, at the end of the act, between Lyssa and Judith, does Wasserstein scratch away a bit of the patina of social and political issues at play here and look at the human drama beneath. Her laundry list is exhaustive and, in a dramatic sense, exhausting — power politics in Washington; women at the wrong end of political and social double standard; gender and ethnic inequality in public health policies; the role of the media in creating, and uncreating, celebrity; the tension between a public life and a private one; tectonic shifts, over time, in a marriage of long-standing that seems solid and secure.
Wasserstein finally turns her full, or nearly full, attention to the human dimension of her narrative in the second act as Lyssa (played by Davis with conviction and understanding), wrestles with doing the right thing and what that means in the face of a situation which she feels is fundamentally unfair, if not entirely wrong. Wasserstein's better writer is in charge here as she meaningfully builds this act to a penultimate scene between Lyssa and her father that, in its quiet, unassuming way, finds truth in a relationship between two people who are political opposites but who share respect, decency, genes, bloodline, love.
What: "An American Daughter" by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Evan Cabnet
With: Diane Davis, Kerr Bushé, Saidah Arrika Eukalona, Stephen Kunken, Roe Hartrampf, Jason Daniely, Richard Poe, Deborah Rush, Will Pullen
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival
Where: Main Stage, '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St.(Route 2), Williamstown
When: Through Aug. 20. Evenings — Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday and Sunday at 2; Saturday at 3:30
Running time: 2 hours 26 minutes (including one intermission)
How: 413-597-3400; wtfestival.org; in person at '62 Center box office