Gossip and charm spark 'The Women'
By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff
September 26, 2006

Stylish, amusing, piquant, smart with a touch of camp -- and that's just the hats.

Scott Edmiston's production of ``The Women" with SpeakEasy Stage Company lives up to the marvelously witty 1930s outfits Gail Astrid Buckley has designed for it, and that's saying a lot. It also, more profoundly, casts new light on Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 satire. With Edmiston expertly guiding a cast of 20 terrific actresses, ``The Women" reveals itself as far more interesting than the dated festival of feminine wiles it's sometimes remembered as, even by its admirers.

Edmiston doesn't ignore all the opportunities for camping things up. But he also doesn't let them take over the stage, except (perhaps inevitably, since it's hard to imagine how you'd play it straight) in a climactic catfight featuring the meanest cat of the litter, the acid-tongued Sylvia.

It's Sylvia's addiction to vicious gossip that gets ``The Women" going, with the fast-spreading news that Mary Haines, the centerpiece of this smart Manhattan set, is losing her rich husband to -- horrors! -- a shopgirl. From the first whispers around the bridge table to that slapfest in Reno, Maureen Keiller gives Sylvia a brilliantly bitter edge. She's full of venom, and it's addictive.

By contrast, Luce paints Mary as almost too saintly, but Anne Gottlieb saves her from the pedestal by making us feel her fury and steel, not just her martyred sense of betrayal. This Mary isn't an abandoned wifey pining for her man; she's a woman who thought she was being respected and treated as an equal, and is enraged to find out she's wrong.

That subtext is what makes ``The Women" fascinating as a portrait of American women in the early throes of liberation, and it's the subtext that seems to interest Edmiston most. Yes, these women are smart and funny and bitchy. But they're also trapped in a life no intelligent person would choose, and they know it. When they sharpen their claws on one another -- and they do -- it's because there's no way out of their crowded, gilded cage.

Luce places some of the blame on society, but saves more of it for these poor rich society women. She makes many pointed jabs at their narcissism, their blithe acceptance of privilege, and their cluelessness about the real hardships in the lives of the other women -- the maids, manicurists, sales clerks, and cigarette girls -- who toil away at the edges of their golden circle.

One of the many joys of this production is the chance to see 20 terrific actresses on one stage. Every single character, from the leading ones to the most peripheral, becomes precisely and persuasively herself through the careful, collaborative work of all the women creating them. Nancy E. Carroll is particularly irresis tible as the Luce stand-in, a dry and clear-eyed writer whose quick asides keep us focused amid the whirl. And she's essential to the delectable end of the first act, an unexpected embellishment of the script that feels exactly right.

But everyone -- and that includes Dewey Dellay, with his hilariously appropriate, twinkly music; Brynna Bloomfield, with a minimal but flexible set; Scott Clyve, with sensitive lighting; and makeup artist Jason Allen, with those fabulous Jungle Red nails -- deserves an ovation for bringing this underappreciated play back to life. Heck, more than an ovation.

Ladies, raise your martini glasses high. What a swell party this is.