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THEATER REVIEW : Crucial Flaw Hampers 'Chronicles' Enjoyment : Wendy Wasserstein's well-honed satire of baby boomers' quest for the meaning of life completely ignores family ties.

January 27, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From high school dances, Eugene McCarthy rallies and tie-dye T-shirts to feminist collectives, encounter groups, power lunches and "Boomer" magazine--the iconography in "The Heidi Chronicles" is right on the money.

Yet as playwright Wendy Wasserstein's self-absorbed baby boomers parade across the stage--in their episodic, rudderless quest for meaning in a society shaped by fads--an inescapable oddity is their complete absence of family history.

Issues of life fulfillment, equal rights and personal relationships receive plenty of Wasserstein's well-honed satirical scrutiny. Yet not one of her 19 characters is involved with--or even mentions anything about--his or her parents.

It's as though the entire bunch had sprung fully formed into the world, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

"Our friends are our families," Wasserstein's heroine--intellectual art historian Heidi Holland (played in this PCPA Theaterfest production by Karen Barbour)--offers in an off-handed attempt to plug the hole, and the subject receives no further treatment.

Perhaps it's because Wasserstein's previous play ("Isn't It Romantic?") had examined the shackles of parent-child neuroses to borderline sitcom excess.

But when this play presents itself so insistently as the chronicles of an entire generation--as seen through Heidi's bemused and often contrary point of view--the missing part of the equation leaves the representation suspect.

Especially when the underlying conceit of the characters (and of the playwright as well) is that they're facing life issues that have no historical precedent.

Fortunately, director Roger DeLaurier's staging relegates the broader sociological sweep to the backdrop wherever possible, and finds its greatest success in the personal dimensions of Heidi's story.

Particularly her involvement with the two men in her life--her lover Scoop (Paul Klein), a pushy magazine editor, and her lifelong friend and confidante Peter (Jeremy Mann), a cynical but loyal doctor.

As Heidi, Barbour makes the most of her revelatory scenes--talking about her obsession for Scoop in an encounter group, or breaking down and confessing her sense of inadequacy when addressing a luncheon.

Unfortunately, these scenes are few and far between. Throughout much of the play, Heidi remains a self-styled "informed spectator," simply witnessing the ever-shifting world around her.

Filling that passivity with an engaging performance is a tough challenge. The attempt here has been to render Heidi with an outright perkiness that often clashes with the thoughtful reserve she's called on to demonstrate (the art history lectures are particularly unconvincing).

And while Mann's Peter is a finely nuanced portrayal (his scenes with Barbour ache with emotional honesty), Klein never manages the irresistible charm that's supposed to make Heidi (and us) like him in spite of his arrogance.

Without any margin for coasting in a particularly difficult and unforgiving script, the production offers an equal measure of triumphs and missed opportunities.

Details

* WHAT: "The Heidi Chronicles."

* WHEN: Tonight through Feb. 6, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

* WHERE: Allan Hancock College, Severson Theatre, 800 S. College Drive in Santa Maria.

* COST: $12-$16.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call (800) 549-7272.

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