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Growing Up Is Hard to Do

You're not a masochist."

"Oh, yes I am. I'm an insurance seminar hostess!"

High-pitched twitters; big Tupperware-party smiles. This is the kind of exchange with which Uncommon Women & Others begins, and it makes you doubt the veracity of the title.

The Mount Holyoke College alumni meeting for drinks in the first scene of the play are no housewives, but there is something of Stepford in their reunion anyway: a disturbing touch of Pleasantville. Women enter, hugs and squeals of delight are exchanged, but the copious good humor is stiff and unreal. The old friends are bursting with joy to meet one another, but you can almost see them sweating; they look like they're slavishly reenacting a choice moment from a favorite feel-good chick flick. In any event, they certainly look like they're following a script. If you haven't seen Uncommon Women before (and I hadn't), it's worrisome.

But one might as well reflect: Why would Wendy Wasserstein, who wrote Uncommon Women as a Yalie chasing a post-grad, write a play in celebration of the walking dead? Wasserstein's subject matter always had to do with the movement of women through post-lib America — see the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning The Heidi Chronicles — and she's occasionally gotten conceptual, but she was never exactly a "concept artist." She was never pomo. What I mean is, she'd never bore you just for the art of it. If you were to meditate on this through the seven or eight minutes of tortured dialogue at this play's beginning, you'd probably figure that the young Wasserstein was up to something. And you'd be right.

Soon, the play switches from the present of 1978 to a flashback of 1972, and the girls who were just gulping wine and beaming rictus grins at one another are now at Mount Holyoke, where Mrs. Plumm (Marjorie O'Neill-Butler), a Holyoke "house mother," is addressing her charges at the beginning of the school year. The assembled girls, all but one of them seniors, sing school songs with varying degrees of seriousness, occasionally disrupting the proceedings to make a bawdy joke at Mrs. Plumm's expense. Although the girls don't talk much — this is, after all, an assembly — there is more fire in them here, in their relative silence, than in all the joyous eruptions of the previous scene. The quips they trade are organic, their movements free from posturing. All of a sudden, everything seems unrehearsed and alive.

The remainder of Uncommon Women & Others takes place in this protracted flashback, save for a brief reprise of the reunion near play's end. There isn't much plot to any of it, and what there is of plot is more implied than shown. Rather, this is a character study of seven young women trying to locate their rhythm before stepping into the real world; mentally taking the requisite deep breath before plunging in and finding out if the things they've learned to value in themselves will sustain them beyond the ivy and ivory towers of New England academia.

Inevitably, the fun factor of such a show rests exclusively on how interesting the girls in question might be; whether their unguarded moments are banal or illuminating, predictable or exceptional, common or "uncommon." Most likely, it's a question of editing — any bunch of college seniors will have a lot of both kinds of moments over the course of a year. It's up to Wasserstein to weed out the dross.

It's remarkable, therefore, to witness how much forward momentum is captured here by what is essentially a bunch of young ladies navel-gazing in a dormitory. It feels like it has a story, even if it doesn't. Mostly, it's an intense desire to get to know these girls, inspired by ever-mounting evidence that there's much to know. This is true of all of Wasserstein's uncommon women, but it's more true of some than others, and it is true of Dania Aguero's "Rita" most of all.

She wears Western dresses and boots, like a '70s Sontag in a breezy mood, and she talks the way Camille Paglia must have talked in her senior year at Harpur College. Watch how she explodes into a room, bursting with the news that she's just tasted her menstrual blood for the first time. Her friends are a little disgusted, but mostly they're amused. You get the sense that she makes them feel in touch with the times — that they all live through her a little. That such sympathies are totally at odds with the ladies' seminary manners of Holyoke is the great unspecified schism at the heart of Wasserstein's play and the source of its dramatic tension. The institution is the past, and the girls tolerate and take comfort in it. As graduation draws near, they can even cop to enjoying it. But it's not for them forever.

It'd be easy to say that Aguero (who, by the way, looks like the much-prettier daughter of Joan Baez) dominates the show with her outsized instinctual feminism and frank sex talk, but it would also be unfair — her role was written to dominate. Lots can be learned from Holly (Elda Elisa Brouwer), long on appetite and short on confidence, obsessing over a man she met a year ago in a museum with a puppy-dog mix of fear and exhilaration written across her face, speaking directly to the memory of every stupid youthful crush and stupider youthful insecurity you ever endured. Or the bright-eyed Susie Friend (Sheri Martini), the living embodiment of dumb school spirit writ large. What happens to girls like her? And why are they so annoying when you're still in school and so perversely affecting afterward?

Most important, witness Samantha (Erin Joy Schmidt) falling in love with the man she'll later marry (the audience never meets him). She says some interesting things about it that maybe tell us more about Wendy Wasserstein than about women in general. Samantha's "a little talented at a lot of things," and her man, Robert, is apparently her superior. That's what she wants — to stand behind an exceptional man — and she wants it with all her heart: Schmidt's performance is the perfect picture of a woman who knows her mind even if her era makes her feel guilty about it.

And between her and Rita is a vast continuum of ambition into which all of Wasserstein's uncommon women fall. When the play returns to the reunion, Samantha, as you might expect, is satisfied, and Rita's still seeking. Save Samantha, they're all back to the pinched, poised selves they were at the beginning: compromised, faking it, already having to put on their brave faces at the advanced age of 28.

But Wasserstein was 26 when Uncommon Women was first performed, and she'd never been out of school. She was still, in a way, in the grip of the same senior-year fears and frustrations facing the girls she wrote about. As she aged, she probably didn't feel as deflated as these 28-year-olds look in Uncommon Women. People change as they get older; they want different things. But they never want more than they do when they're young, and if you're there, even if only through the time travel of theater, it's hard to look forward and see anything but betrayal.

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Brandon K. Thorp

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