Catfights and cutting comments, elegant gowns and not-so-idle gossip. “The Women,” Clare Boothe Luce’s acidic look at aristocratic women, is getting a sparkling production from SpeakEasy Stage Company, primarily because of the wealth of female talent sashaying across the Roberts Studio Theatre stage.
Luce’s crisply structured play takes place in fitting rooms, bathrooms, ladies lounges, health spas and sitting rooms - all of which are off-limits to men. Luce is so determined to keep her conceit intact that when forced to include a pivotal scene between a husband and wife, she has a maid (Elizabeth Hayes) recount the conversation to another servant (a terrific Sandra Heffley).
The story centers around an oddball assortment of “friends.” Mary Haines (a regal Anne Gottlieb) is a happily married woman who discovers her husband is cheating on her when her pal Sylvia (an absolutely brilliant Maureen Keiller) passes on news overheard while getting a manicure. Mary’s life heads into a tailspin when she confronts her trampy rival (a exceptionally cutting Georgia Lyman) and sues for divorce.
Despite the heat generated by the likes of Nancy E. Carroll, Kerry A. Dowling and Ellen Colton, this first half of “The Women” is remarkably frosty, probably because Brynna Bloomfield’s chilly set keeps us at arm’s length. The opening scene occurs during a bridge game, but there’s no card table and chairs are lined up as if we’re in a doctor’s waiting room. The broad, wide stage is white, with classic Greek columns on one side and a circular curtain on the other. The idea may have been to offer a blank palette for Gail Astrid Buckley’s dazzling array of evening gowns and outfits, but it makes the environment too sterile, which is one thing these women are not.
Luckily, things heat up in the second half, when a parade of divorcees - allies and rivals alike - head to Reno to wait out the final decree. Sonya Raye generates some delicious heat as the other woman, Mary Klug is a scream as the Countess de Lage and Colton offers some no-holds-barred moments in a variety of roles.
Director Scott Edmiston lets the play breathe on its own, so feminist comments about unequal pay land with the same weight as misogynist statements about standing by your man. More than the attitudes, what fascinates him (and the audience) is the sparkling dialogue and the opportunity to gather so many fabulous women on a single stage. His goal becomes clear when he inserts the Cole Porter song “Down in the Depths” into the proceedings. Itallows various women to comment on their position while also providing a magnificent tableau to flaunt the two dozen women gracing the stage.
“The Women”Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Roberts Studio Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 21.