Failing to breathe new life into Wendy Wasserstein's weak satire 'An American Daughter'

DM1DAUGHTER16. Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company’s production of ‘An American Daughter’ -15102017-0001
Kristina Denzel Bickford stars in Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s political satire ‘An American Daughter’.

Wendy Wasserstein’s political satire An American Daughter isn’t exactly fleet of foot. A bloated, overlong, if intelligent screed against business as usual in Washington, it was rightly criticized on its Broadway premiere in 1997 as a plodding, top-heavy presentation of a confusing maelstrom of different issues.

Wasserstein, who died in 2006 at 55, had won a Pulitzer in 1989 for the far more successful The Heidi Chronicles. The magic that made Heidi so good is absent from An American Daughter, which is crammed with enough material for three plays – and a master’s thesis. It simply has too many unresolved subplots involving too many speaking parts. (The play’s lukewarm critical reception didn’t stop Lifetime TV from adapting it into a telefilm in 2000 starring Christine Lahti in the role that Kate Nelligan originated on Broadway.)

Given its many moving parts, An American Daughter is hardly suited for a regional theater company with modest resources.

Try telling that to the folks at Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company, which this weekend opened an ambitious if wrongheaded production. It will be performed for three more shows Friday, Oct. 20, through Sunday, Oct. 22 at Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Homestead Hall in Jenkintown.

Directed by Pulley & Buttonhole founder Bridget Reilly Beauchamp, An American Daughter features several terrific performances, and it certainly raises questions about American politics and the media that are of vital importance. But the show is hampered by a whole host of problems, not least of which is the performance space.

Homestead Hall, which has a high raised stage, has some of the worst acoustics I’ve experienced. Performers’ voices don’t seem to carry beyond the proscenium, which seems to trap sound. Try to deliver a soft line, and you’ll have the audience leaning forward straining to make out the words.

I’m torn between my actual experience of the play – pretty abysmal – and my admiration for what Beauchamp and the players are trying to accomplish with An American Daughter, which they are presenting as part of a series of plays about women written and directed by women.

Like the bulk of Wasserstein’s work, An American Daughter certainly has serious feminist credentials. A drawing room comedy of sorts, it’s set in the comfortable living room of Georgetown doctor and health administrator Lyssa Dent Hughes (Kristina Denzel Bickford in a rich, strong performance), her college prof husband Walter Abrahamson (Doug Layne) and their young twin sons. Lyssa, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who attended prep school with the nation’s first lady, has just been nominated by the president — a Democratic policy wonk of a hunk who sounds an awful lot like Bill Clinton — to become his surgeon general.

Lyssa isn’t new to the game of politics – her father, Alan (James Palmer), is a popular senator and very much  part of the GOP old guard. But through the course of the play, she’ll learn the game is far, far uglier than she ever believed.

The story is simple: Lyssa agrees to have a Sunday brunch party at her home filmed for a news show hosted by rising TV news star Timber Tucke (Jeff Barg). It all goes swimmingly until one of Walter’s BFFs, conservative gay newsman and pundit Morrow (Josh Keiter), lets it slip that Lyssa has avoided doing jury duty her entire adult life.

As you’d expect, a media frenzy erupts around “jurygate.” Within days, Lyssa is branded as a public enemy.

An American Daughter is cluttered with an embarrassing excess of stock characters and extraneous plotlines. However, instead of putting the play under the scalpel, Beauchamp remains faithful to the script. It makes for an ungainly mess.

An American Daughter

Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company production through Sunday, Oct.22 at Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Homestead Hall, 821 Homestead Road, Jenkintown.
Tickets: $20.
Information: 215-392-9958, pulleyandbuttonholetheatre.org.