SpeakEasy's production of Luce's 'The Women' shines

Sylvia (Maureen Keiller, left) confronts Crystal (Georgia Lyman) about an alleged affair in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company Production of "The Women."

    What do you get when you put 22 actresses on stage without a man in sight?
    Well, if the play is Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women," what you get is claws covered with Jungle Red, and we're not just talking a fingernail-polish color. You get viciously funny lines between women who pretend to be close friends. You get numerous accounts of women's marriages falling apart. But at the center of it all, what you get is a poignant story of a good woman struggling to deal with her unfaithful husband in the 1930s when women had far fewer options.
    It makes for a play that works very effectively at a variety of levels making us laugh out loud at Luce's nonstop zingers, making us think with its biting social commentary, but most of all making us feel for Mary Haines, who discovers that her wealthy husband has fallen for a sexy, young, but extremely hard-edged perfume saleswoman.
    Although the play was written 70 years ago and certainly has some of the trapping of the 1930s, its liveliness and many of the issues it raises still feel very contemporary.
    The SpeakEasy Stage Company's timing was perfect when they decided to open their season with "The Women." It plays at the very time when the Lyric Stage Company across town has employed more than 20 male actors and only two female actors for "1776." SpeakEasy has helped to balance things out nicely for women actors.
    This show is worth seeing simply for the rare opportunity to watch so many talented Boston actresses working so well on stage together without a man in the cast (other than the dastardly husbands who are left to our imaginations, which has its own effectiveness).
    The play hums with some of the worst aspects of the female species endless gossip and tearing each other down while feigning friendship. Sylvia Fowler is the worst of the bunch, and actress Maureen Keiller is excellent at giving her a vicious tongue, which she aims most pointedly at the play's narrator, Nancy Blake, a novelist, played with a deliciously sour coolness by Nancy E. Carroll.
    In one of the play's funnier lines, Edith, resigned to being a baby machine, says, "Watercress sandwiches. I'd rather eat my way across a front lawn." But most of the tart lines are directed at each other, not at sandwiches.
    There's warfare going on between the classes, as the wealthy women treat the shopkeepers, manicurists and nurses despicably. Most of them, in turn, dote on their wealthy clients, until they leave the room.
    All of the fangs and claws would become a little much, if the central character, Mary Haines, weren't so kind and enormously sympathetic, exemplifying many of the best female qualities. Anne Gottlieb gives a superb performance as Mary, carrying herself with a classical elegance while expressing warmth and natural kindness. But most important, she's brilliant at revealing the numerous emotional shifts in her character as she faces the trials of her dissolving marriage.
    Alice Duffy beautifully captures the stiff upper lip of Mrs. Morehead, Mary's mother, who, based on her own experience, advises her daughter to ignore her husband's infidelity. Sophie Rich is very natural and loveable as Little Mary, Mary's young daughter, whose lines drive home the pain that divorces often inflict on children. "The only good thing about divorce is you get to sleep with your mother," she says towards the end of the play.
    Georgia Lyman plays Crystal Allen the perfume saleswoman who steals the heart of Mary Haines' husband as a sexy but very hard-edged young woman. You can't help but feel that Mr. Haines lost his marbles when he found her more appealing than his wife.
    Director Scott Edmiston actually, there is a man involved in this production has done an excellent job at keeping the scenes flowing and maintaining the ensemble acting with so many women on the stage. But one wishes that he might have helped a few of the actresses avoid playing stereotypes quite so much so that Ms. Lyman's Crystal Allen was a little more appealing, Ellen Colton didn't play her three minor characters quite so broadly, and Amanda Good Hennessey didn't make Mr. Haines' secretary quite so obviously inhuman. But these are matters of shading.
    The plot has some surprising twists and turns as the play develops that add to the evening's enjoyment. Costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley captures the style of the 1930s with her beautiful dresses, while revealing a considerable amount of "bazoom," as the characters would say, before the evening's over. Brynna Bloomfield's set is fairly simple, although a gauzy curtain suspended from a hoop and a sunken bathtub add a lot.
    This show offers a host of pleasures. It's sure to be one of the highlights of this theater season.
    WHAT: A revival of a play by Clare Boothe Luce about a lovely woman who has to deal with her sniping female friends and husband's infidelity.
    WHERE: Standford Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston.
    WHEN: Through October 21.
    TICKETS: Range from $42 to $46 with a $5 discount for seniors. They can be purchased by calling (617) 933-8600 or by going online to www.BostonTheatreScene.com. Date of Publication: October 08, 2006 on Page B03