Issue Date: 9/28/2006, Posted On: 9/27/2006

On the stage
Jungle Red Anne Gottlieb and Georgia Lyman face off. Photo: Mike Lovett


Brian Jewell
bjewell@baywindows.com
"Some of my best friends are women," a gossip purrs ingenuously in the beginning of The Women; a questionable statement given the dubious eye cast on female friendships in Clare Booth Luce's classic satire. In this comedy of (ill) manners, currently mounted by Speakeasy Stage Company, marriage is a deadly serious business, and women scrabble for power in their drawing rooms just as their men jockey for position in offices and boardrooms. Set in the 1930s, the currency these women deal in is men, and the big questions are: who's got one, who can hang on to one and who can trade up.

Trading up is a central concept, as the play is as concerned with class as it is with gender. The pampered rich are skewered, and Booth shows sympathy to the working class girls who service them in various ways. The central conflict is the threat posed to the Haines marriage by the social-climbing Crystal Allen. The placid Mary Haines is too complacent to believe a mere shopgirl like Allen could tempt her husband; she learns too late that Allen plays by different, rougher rules than she expects. Mary eventually reaches a happy ending, but it's bittersweet; she has to learn to sharpen her claws to outsmart the devious Crystal Allen, and it's arguable whether she's become wise or crass.

The problem, though as the playbill is quick to suggest is not that women are inherently bitchy backstabbers, but that these particular women have no outlet for their intellects and ambitions. The sole employed woman in Mary's circle is Nancy, a writer of unpopular novels, who observes as she leaves a room that "no one ever misses a clever woman." The other clever women of the play use their wits to tear down and manipulate each other in various ways as they lounge around bridge tables and beauty parlors. In the 75 years since it was first produced, The Women has become a period piece, its observations of society rather dated.

Its wit, however, still sparkles. This is a very funny play, full of clever lines, biting commentary, and above all, characters drawn with delicious precision. Mary must negotiate a jungle of women in which it's hard to tell friends from enemies. There's the terrible twosome of Sylvia and Edith: one smart as a whip, one dumb as a post, and both dangerously obsessed with gossip; the impressionable newlywed Peggy, who's even quicker than Mary to take her friend's bad advice; the savvy Miriam, who shares her hard-won wisdom with Mary; and the love-obsessed Countess, approaching her dotage without a shred of wisdom. And those are just the most obvious characters in a cast of 20 actresses and roughly 30 characters.

In addition to the obvious themes bubbling under the sharp dialogue and catfights, there's a strange note of sympathy; the characters may brim with acrimony but the cast overflows with chemistry. It's a real treat to watch these women hum along like a well-oiled machine. Perhaps that delight motivated director Scot Edmiston's decision to trot the entire cast out at the end of the first act to sing "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor." It's a strange moment, but it's Edmiston's sole miscalculation.

Otherwise, the play speeds along nicely. Edmiston creates the perfect balance of comedy and drama. Each comic moment is sharpened and refined, and each joke lands. Better yet, many of the more dramatic moments are smoothed over, preventing the play from becoming maudlin. Most impressively, he and actress Anne Gottlieb have solved the problem of Mary Haines: a passive central character who's tough to like. In the classic 1939 film of The Women, Norma Shearer's Mary was a martyr who suffered with glamorous nobility and cloying sweetness. In the recent Off-Broadway revival, Cynthia Nixon's Mary was almost a complete non-entity. But Gottlieb brings so much warmth to the part that even at her most foolish, it's easy to sympathize with her. It helps that Sonya Raye plays the been-around-the-block Miriam as passionate instead of world-weary. We can see that Miriam gives Mary not just wisdom, but a spark a spark Mary will fan into a flame in the final scene. The whole cast deserves praise. Most notably, Maureen Keiller tears into the juicy role of Sylvia with abandon. She's so self-centered and hilariously over-entitled that her maliciousness is almost innocent, as if the dirt she dishes is completely divorced from the people it concerns. Her reactions are priceless; when Crystal Allen almost blurts out a secret, it's as if Sylvia can smell the juicy tidbit. Kerry Dowling's Edith oozes smug stupidity, Mary Klug's Countess is enjoyably over the top, and Nancy E. Carroll delivers a marvelous deadpan as the observer Nancy.

The Women runs through Oct. 21 at The Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets $42-$46. Visit www.BostonTheatreScene.com or call 617.529.1670.