"I like that Wendy Wasserstein," an older woman was overheard saying at the California premiere of An American Daughter in Mountain View, "but did she have to bring in gays?" Well, no, she didn't; but since her newest play is about Washington politics, Wasserstein does try to be inclusive. There's the gay conservative media star, the snappy and sex-driven New Feminist, the nostalgic ex-New Left professor, the ambitious TV newsman, the elderly Republican senator, his uptight fourth wife, and his baby-boomer daughter, Lyssa, who's married to the professor and considers herself part of the first generation of American women to reject housewifely duties in favor of ambitious careers. Lyssa's been nominated for surgeon general; she has a chance to be the first woman in history to take that post, and the play shows the politics blocking her way. It rises above the cartoonery you might expect from a cast of types -- it feels smart, like a Doonesbury cartoon -- but no matter how much idealism a playwright attaches to it, the quest for a government job just isn't interesting enough to fuel a nearly three-hour show.
The story takes details from the careers of Hillary Clinton and (ex-Surgeon General) Joycelyn Elders, but Lyssa has been carefully defined as neither one: She's a fifth-generation granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant. (By odd coincidence, in this production her black Jewish doctor friend, Judith, is played by one Judyann Elders, no relation to the ex-Cabinet member.) Lyssa's first TV interview sours because the gay conservative opens his mouth about a jury summons that she once failed to answer, so Lyssa and her family brace for a backlash against her nomination; but the backlash comes from housewives across the Midwest, who don't like an offhand comment she made about "ice-box-cake and pimento-cheese-canape moms." So Lyssa has to defend herself as a privileged senator's daughter who's neglected some domestic duties for the sake of her career. The way she does it is Hillary-like: She goes on TV with a girlish headband and spouts pious nonsense about The Family. The story feels strong, but stuck between satire and drama: I wanted more wicked humor milked from the recognizable Washington types, or else more humanity. Wasserstein leans in the humanity direction, but the actors in this show aren't lively enough to follow.
The two main women, Lyssa and her friend Judith, are played well enough by Stephanie Dunnam and Elders -- they deliver their crucial speeches with unobtrusive feeling -- but Carl Weintraub can be sickeningly sentimental as Lyssa's husband, Walter, and Steve Marvel does a stand-up comedian's impression of a tart gay man. Robert Parnell is solid as the Senator Alan Hughes, but overall the cast hasn't found an organic rhythm for the lines: They come out stiffly, like dry sticks. The stiffness fades at the middle when the story gets interesting, but it resurfaces after Lyssa's last big speech on TV, when the story should wind down; but instead it drags on for another few scenes. An American Daughter has all the wit of a Doonesbury cartoon but none of its blessed brevity.
Like a clueless guest, the show arrives early. Minutes after 8, David Shiner hurries down the aisle and scrambles across a row of patrons. At the end of the row, he finds his seat -- taken. Shiner stares down the interloper and, when that doesn't dislodge him, whacks him with his program. Meanwhile, Bill Irwin quietly slips in front of the stage's curtain to introduce the show, but his mike starts screaming. Stuffing the equipment behind the curtain, he catches his fingers in the mike holder.
When eventually a voice comes over the intercom to "present" ACT's Fool Moon, it's like Godot arriving on the set of Beckett's play to find that everyone had come to enjoy waiting. Except for a few very funny, anticlimactic routines together, Irwin's troubles preparing to perform and Shiner's wrangling of the audience in place of performing turn out to be the performance. The theatrical enchantment the clowns haplessly work toward is always just out of reach; in its place, they give us something more valuable.
If he talked, Irwin would be a sweet mumbler. He's part Harpo, part Groucho, part Keaton, part Chaplin. Unable to coordinate his legs for a dance number, he discovers his vest is buttoned crooked. That explains it! He whirls the vest all around his torso without taking it off. These convolutions are Irwin's way of getting somewhere simply. Once the vest is frontways and upright again, he buttons it up properly and begins to dance. For him, as for many of us, the only way between two points is roundabout.