An American Daughter

Thanks to a bit of cosmic luck, Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” is opening at a time when some of its main plot elements seem to be torn from today’s headlines.

Smart and solidly liberal Lyssa Dent Hughes (Joyce Cohen) has been nominated by the president to be the new Surgeon General. All she needs now is the confirmation. Before that can happen, though, as a vacuous TV news reporter follows her around for a fluff piece, it comes out that she once semi-inadvertently skipped out on jury duty. She also makes a couple of remarks that, out of context, sound like she’s ripping on stay-at-home moms and old-fashioned, “traditional” families.

If there’s any phrase that clearly bespeaks the tone of the 1990s, it’s “media frenzy,” and that’s what ensues after the breaking of “Jurygate.” Friends and family are called upon to stick up for Lyssa, and she agrees to do a follow-up interview to try to set the record straight — with mixed results.

Surely the ways in which this plot seems real need not be explained. But ultimately, the play is not about media hype and sensationalistic journalism (which is nice, because those things have been done to death). It’s about the point in one’s life when you think, “What have I DONE with myself?” Nearly everyone in the play, to some extent, struggles with this question. Lyssa begins to wonder if she’s accomplished everything she thought she had. Her best friend, African-American-Jewish Judith Kaufman (Angela Bullock), despises men but wants a baby — and is distraught at being unsuccessful at it. Lyssa’s husband Walter (Geoffrey Wade), thanks to an astonishingly, jaw-droppingly stupid maneuver, may have irreparably damaged his marriage. Lyssa’s father, conservative Sen. Alan Hughes (Robert Peterson), has just gotten married for the fourth time.

Is anyone satisfied? Many of them have the things that seem like they SHOULD guarantee happiness — social and political success, families, careers, money, etc. — but still they wonder what they’ve really accomplished.

“An American Daughter” is a grown-up play, where kids are heard and not seen. There is humor, but it is intellectual and not silly (the delightfully gay Morrow McCarthy (Chris Mixon) tells a bitter Judith: “Your non-practicing heterosexuality is eliminating your joie de vivre“). The script is smashingly intelligent, without seeming snooty — much like the characters themselves. No broad strokes with these people: Even the vacuous TV guy (Ron Nummi) and the flamboyant homosexual have some real edges on them, not two-dimensional cut-outs like you’d see in a more wacky comedy. This is a smart, thought-provoking play.

One interesting thing about this show is that it uses the F-word 11 times (I counted). Another interesting thing is that every time I go to Salt Lake City for a show, no matter who I go with, we can never find the restaurant we want. We always have vague ideas about where something is, but by the time we realize we can't find it, we're nearly out of time, and we wind up at Chili's instead. As much as I like Chili's, it's still a little frustrating.