Patriot Ledger at SouthofBoston.com

THEATER REVIEW - ‘The Women’ returns in impressive revival: Production feels fresh, funny, but at times borders on caricature

MaryCrystal
Mary (Anne Gottlieb, left) and Crystal (Georgia Lyman) prepare for a showdown in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company Production of “The Women.” (Photo courtesy of Mike Lovett)

By IRIS FANGER
For The Patriot Ledger

When Clare Boothe Luce’s play ‘‘The Women’’ opened on Broadway in 1936, the intertwined subjects of infidelity, female dependency in a man’s world and the uncertain nature of the friendships between women made for novel revelation under the bright lights of the stage, to assure the show of setting attendance records for a non-musical. However, reviving ‘‘The Women’’ for contemporary viewers who have watched countless episodes of ‘‘Sex In The City’’ and ‘‘Desperate Housewives’’ is tricky business, especially in finding an appropriate tone for attitudes forged by the difference in society’s ethics.

Speakeasy Stage Company has opened its 16th season with an impressive revival of the Booth work, although sometimes it’s hard to discern the nature of the action on stage. To be sure, it’s comic, with Booth’s quips combining an audacity and element of surprise that still seems current. Nancy, the unmarried writer, calls herself ‘‘ a virgin - a frozen asset,’’ then adds on leaving a scene, ‘‘No one ever misses a clever woman.’’ Later on comes one of the most often quoted lines of the play that sums up the plot, ‘‘There’s nothing like another woman to make a man appreciate his wife.’’ However, the plot turns and extravagant characters, as directed by Scott Edmiston, sometimes border on caricature and the production comes perilously close to kidding the material by the second act.

The setting is Park Avenue, New York, where the indolent wives of rich husbands spend their days at bridge games and gossip, spreading secrets to ruin another’s illusions with utmost glee. The main plot-line concerns the happily married Mary Haines, who discovers that her husband, Steven, is keeping a mistress, Crystal Allen, a gold-digger who has tangled him in her clutches. Mary’s friends, the cynical Sylvia Fowler, the ever-pregnant Edith Potter, and the innocent young bride Peggy Day, alternately console her and gloat at her fate. By Act II, however, there are enough plot reversals to send the pack of them off to Reno for multiple divorces. An upstairs-downstairs contrast is established with scenes between the members of the household staff commenting on their employers, and characters like the snoopy manicurist at the beauty salon du jour.

The gimmick is the all-female ensemble, talking about little else than their men who never appear on stage. Edmiston has framed the show in narration, with Nancy sitting at a typewriter at the side of the stage to recite Luce’s revealing stage directions and descriptions of the various characters. He’s also added an Act I finale for the entire cast, posed on stage, to sing Cole Porter’s languid ballad, ‘‘Down in the Depths (on the 90th floor)’’ about the lonely lives of the women who live perched high above Park Avenue.

In the Speakeasy production, 20 fine local actresses take on the 40 different roles with varying degrees of glee and abandon, particularly Maureen Keiller as the venal Sylvia, Mary Klug as the slightly-dotty, much married and divorced Countess, and the stunning Georgia Lyman as Crystal, the other woman. Anne Gottlieb portrays Mary with dignity and a quiet pathos, turning into a tiger herself at the end when she fights to regain her man. There’s a telling generational relationship between Mary, her sensible mother, Mrs. Morehead, played by Alice Duffy, and Mary’s young daughter, given the correct amount of insight by Winsor School student Sophie Rich.

The play is greatly enhanced by Brynna Bloomfield’s suggestive setting of an art deco apartment, created by using only pillars, a sweeping white curtain and a chandelier. The elegant set of costumes designed by Gail Astrid Buckley is chic enough and so becoming to each actress that I wanted to rush out to the nearest vintage store to shop for a new wardrobe. The Speakeasy production of ‘‘The Women’’ is entertaining fare but one wonders if there were more truths than easy laughs that might have been uncovered in Booth’s evocative work.

The Women
At Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 21. Tickets $46-$37 at 617-933-8600 or BostonTheatrescene.com.

Copyright 2006 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Tuesday, September 26, 2006