Making choices in literature — and in life

Making choices in literature — and in life

Writer Winnie Holzman talks about the arc of her play, now at the McCarter

Actors Jake Cannavale, Dakin Matthews, and Ilana Levine are in “Choice” at the McCarter in Princeton. (T Charles Erickson)
Actors Jake Cannavale, Dakin Matthews, and Ilana Levine are in “Choice” at the McCarter in Princeton. (T Charles Erickson)

There’s little more deadly to a play’s chance at a successful run than announcing that it is a work about abortion.

That would signal a didactic piece of earnest sermonizing: if you agreed with it you’d look forward to smug boredom, and if you disagreed, sitting through it would be bile-evoking misery.

But abortion is an extraordinarily complex subject. The creation of new life is a deep mystery, whether you believe it starts at conception or midway through birth. And pregnancy’s effect on a gestating woman is both unpredictable and profound.

To say that a play is about the mystery of life would be to repel an audience. But to have a comedy that touches on abortion, friendship, endings, beginnings, paths taken, not taken, regretted, and not regretted, as well as credulity, fake news, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — that, already, sounds like something worth seeing.

And its protagonist is Jewish! And it’s playing in New Jersey! That gets at just about every one of our sweet spots.

Winnie Holzman’s sort-of-old, sort-of-brand-new play “Choice” is opening at the McCarter Theater in Princeton this week. (See below.)

Ms. Holzman is a writer. In television, she’s probably best known for “My So-Called Life,” which she created; she also worked on “Thirtysomething,” among many other Golden Age shows. And she wrote the book for “Wicked,” the blockbuster Broadway musical that’s been playing since 2003. Her list of credits is long and impressive. But very few of the works on that list are straight plays.

Most of her work is done collaboratively. The first play she’s written and has been performed was a short piece, “Post-It Notes,” that she wrote with her husband, the actor Paul Dooley. “It’s notes on a marriage,” Ms. Holzman said. It takes the idea of a story written in love letters, but because it was meant to be a brief fundraiser, the notes are not actual letters but the words that can be scrawled on a post-it. “We wrote it for the cancer survivor group at the Gilda Radner Foundation,” she said. It’s had a long life, because it’s so easy to produce. “It’s just two actors on two chairs, and because it’s all written out on post-it notes no one has to memorize anything.” Someone dies at the end, “so although it is fun and funny, it’s also touching. People cry at the end.”

“Choice” was born, as an idea, probably about 2007, Ms. Holzman said. “When I first got the idea, I didn’t jump into writing it. I was intimidated by the idea of writing a play.” Eventually she did; it was produced almost 10 years later, in Boston. That was that, she thought. But then the pandemic happened, and then Roe v. Wade fell, and the idea that the play mattered, and that it could be changed — not exactly updated, just changed to accommodate those huge upheavals — rooted itself in her head.

One of the changes involved the play’s length. It had been a conventional two-act play, she said, but the intermission unavoidably reduced the intensity. A 90-minute production, played straight through, allowed her to focus the audience’s attention.

In a lovely, coincidental twist of fate, the McCarter’s new artistic director, Sarah Rasmussen, was interested in bringing the play to her theater. Ms. Holtzman, who grew up in Roslyn Heights on Long Island, went to college at Princeton; later, she earned a master’s degree at NYU’s Tisch School. “When I was at Princeton, I did theater pretty much all the time,” she said. “Back then, it was a student theater, called Theatre Intime. That still exists, and it is a wonderful enterprise. It doesn’t have a faculty adviser — it’s totally student-run. And for two of my four college summers, I did what we called Summer Intime.

“The fact that I went to Princeton has nothing to do with the play being there — it’s not like they went, ‘Oh! She went to Princeton! — but it is such a gift.”

So. The play.

“Back in 2007, I wondered why there weren’t more people writing plays about abortion,” Ms. Holzman said. “It was such a loaded political football, such a polarizing, painful subject. It was seen very much in black and white, but there was so much more to it.

“I said that out loud one day, in my kitchen, and Savannah” — that’s her daughter, Savannah Dooley — “turned to me and said, ‘Mom, if you don’t write the play, who would?’” As in, if Winnie, who is after all a screen and stage writer, cared about the issue as deeply as she did but still did not feel compelled to write about it, why would anyone else bother?

Winnie Holzman

“She was right,” Ms. Holzman said.

“This is such a huge subject. It ended up being about a woman’s right to choose, but it’s about all sorts of choices in life.”

Including the choice to write a play. To write this play. “I felt daunted on a lot of levels here,” Ms. Holzman said. “I felt daunted by the subject matter, and I was like, who am I to write about this? I felt very worried about that. And I felt nervous about writing a play at all, I have to admit.”

So she struggled with the question of whether the issue was too big for her, and what the reaction to her would be. “I was in a kind of a bit of a battle with myself to try to see if I could actually do this,” she said.

The play does have echoes from real life. Its protagonist is the possibly improbably named Zipporah Zunder — Zippy for short. Like Ms. Holzman, Zippy is Jewish; like many American Jews, neither Winnie nor Zippy is observant. In fact, there’s a line where Zippy points out that it’s Rosh Hashanah; she cares enough to notice but not enough to do anything about it. But like her creator, Zippy — whose name, Ms. Holzman was happy to learn, long after she’d fallen in love with it, means bird, because “birds are so symbolic of the soul and spirit — is Jewish. “This comes under the heading of things that you make decisions about that are subconscious,” Ms. Holzman said.

Zippy also sounds like Ms. Holzman — funny in an unacerbic, slightly breathless, far more California than New York way. (And perhaps this is the place for full disclosure — Winnie and I were friends in high school and have been in and out of each other’s lives ever since. So yes, when I say it sounds like her, I mean it.)

There are other resemblances between the characters in the play and real life. Like Zippy, Ms. Holzman is married to a man of significant achievement who is significantly older than she is. Like Zippy, Ms. Holzman has one daughter, who is  smart, funny,  and insightful.

And like Zippy, Ms. Holzman had an abortion, many decades ago.

In “Choice,” it comes back to choices.

“I had begun to think about the fact that if I hadn’t been able to have my legal abortion in my mid-20s, I don’t see how the whole rest of my life could have happened.” No Tisch, no chance to meet the theater luminaries who have been so important in helping shape her career. No “Wicked.” No Paul. No Savannah. In the end, no Winnie-of-today but a different Winnie.

But, she added, to say that her life has unwound in the way she deeply feels that it was meant to unwind — “I’m so grateful to have been able to live the life that I have,” she said — is not to say that the choice she made did not affect her. It did.

Abortion may be binary — you either have one or you don’t — but the choices that surround it are nuanced, and they matter.

It’s all about choices, and you can consider them in “Choice.”

What: “Choice”

Where: At the McCarter Theater in Princeton

When: Now through June 2

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