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The Women

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday Sep 22, 2006


Jungle red: Mary (Anne Gottlieb, left) and Crystal Allen (Georgia Lyman) in The Women.
Jungle red: Mary (Anne Gottlieb, left) and Crystal Allen (Georgia Lyman) in The Women.  (Source:Mike Lovett)
I’ve always wondered what Dorothy Parker thought of the The Women. She didn’t think much of its author, Claire Booth Luce: When an acquaintance told her that Luce made it a habit of being kind to her inferiors, Parker’s response was "Where does she find them?." Ironically that could have been a line that right of Luce’s play. It is full of such retorts, and they come at you at such a rapid-fire pace it’s like being demolished by quips. The Women may have a cruel, even quaint view of the modern women (circa 1936,) but they certainly were funnier then.

Of course the play is largely remembered from its celebrated 1939 film version directed by George Cukor that has some of the fastest spoken dialogue and funniest lines of any film of its period. (The movie script was adapted by another famous female writer from the period, Anita Loos, who had to cut much of the play’s racier dialogue.) Its catty dialogue and outr� fashions have made it into a camp classic, but beneath it all it retained Luce’s bitter commentary on friendship between women. Her nastiness towards her sex is what makes the vehicle (both on film and stage) so fascinating: Luce was an Uber-bitch who expressed her contempt in pointed witticisms that are difficult not to succumb to. Even the play’s most preachy moments are dipped in acidic wit.

Those, though, who go to the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production (that runs at the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion through October 21) expecting to see the film replicated on stage are likely to be surprised. Luce’s play, a hit in 1936, is a different animal. The plot is essentially the same: naive wife (Mary Haines) is victimized by her vicious friends upon hearing of her husband’s infidelity; but the play is more expansive in its Upstairs/Downstairs approach to its overview of the Park Avenue set it so viciously satirizes. Scenes between the service personnel (manicurists, maids, cooks) are indispersed between those of the society women whose personal lives are the stuff of gossip columns, underscoring the class differences and supplying even more nasty laughs.

But is The Women more than an Art Deco artifact or a campy bitchfest? Director Scott Edmiston must think so with his bold re-imagining. Not that he’s lost any of the laughs - he certainly goes for the jugular in the precise delivery of the wisecracks; but he also refocuses the drama onto its essential elements; and, in doing so, makes a far better case for Luce as a dramatist than the 2002 Broadway revival.

His most innovative device is to have the play narrated by Nancy Blake (Nancy Carroll), the world-weary novelist, by having her recite Luce’s stage directions between scenes to supply continuity. Certainly it humanizes a character who is largely a rather two-dimensional stereotype (the bitchy spinster) in the original script, and gives the script a stronger through-line. He also cleverly interpolates the Cole Porter song Down In The Depths (on the 90th Floor) at the end of the first act to underscore Mary’s plight. Sung by the entire company, it frames the moment - Mary’s realization that she’s alone - with rueful resignation. The song’s juxtposition of wealth and self-pity had always been oddly funny; here it is oddly poignant, and effectively tops the play’s first act.

Of course what has made The Women seem dated is Luce’s nasty portrait of her sex and its underlying theme that a woman’s place is in the home. It is a play that feminists condemn (in 1973 Gloria Steinam called a failed Broadway revival "a minstrel show,") and it has in the character of Mary a saint who suffers the indignities of gossip so nobly. It is a difficult role to crack - Norma Shearer is insufferable in the film, and Cynthia Nixon played her with a tiresome Park Avenue accent; but the virtue of Anne Gottlieb’s performance is that she approaches it without affect. This sets her apart from the stylized characters (it would be easy to say gargoyles) around her; and she looks spectacular in the red evening gown she wears for her penultimate confrontation with Crystal Allen (Georgia Lyman,) the shop girl who stole her husband. Lyman is all hard edges as Crystal: cool, beautiful, and confident, and she makes a formidable foe in the penultimate cat fight between the two Mrs. Haines. The play’s other big cat fight - a sock ’em, knock ’em down battle - takes place at the Reno dude ranch between Sylvia Fowler (Maureen Keiller) and Miriam Aarons (Sonya Raye,) and it is hilariously staged right down to the bite that Sylvia plants on her rival’s leg. Keiller is wonderfully funny as the merciless Sylvia. Her brittle delivery and exaggerated expressions are in perfect pitch with Luce’s cartoonish conception. Raye is also quite good as Miriam, the Broadway showgirl with uptown street smarts. As the play’s narrator, Nancy Carroll is a tart, but personable presence: her sotto-voiced line readings are impeccable throughout.

There’s a daffy turn by Mary Klug as the silly, older Countess with an eye for younger men, which contrasts nicely with Alice Duffy’s take on her contemporary, Mary’s more sensible mother. Aimee Doherty does a fine job bringing some dimension to the two-dimensional part of Peggy Day, the society woman who has married a man with little money and ends up in Reno for a divorce. Kerry A. Dowling is hilarious as the perpetually pregnant matron Edith Potter. Her funniest bit has her smoking while nursing her newborn, contemptuously blowing smoke in her baby’s face. Ellen Colton slyly brings to life a number of smaller roles, including a gossipy manicurist (responsible for spreading the item in the first place,) and a rustic dude ranch owner; and Sophie Rich manages to play Mary’s daughter without cloying sentiment. The rest of the 20-member cast play the thirty-odd speaking parts with high comic flair, which is exactly what is called for. Brynna Bloomfield’s simple set is comprised of mauve (or is it lilac?) platforms and columns offset by a teal background that seamlessly suggests the play’s numerous Manhattan locales, which go from elegant drawing rooms to Fifth Avenue salons and department stores. One of her cleverest concepts is her design for Crystal’s boudoir, complete with sunken bath filled with bubbles (and Crystal.) Gail Astrid Buckley’s splendid costumes not only suggest the 1930s, but also the characters who wear them, with high style. Scott Clyve’s lighting design gives the production a classy sheen. Even the Dewey Dellay’s original music - kind-of 1930s-styled elevator music - fits perfectly. The Women is a relic, to be sure, but one with such calibrated malice as to have stood the test of time.

Through October 21 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, 539 Tremont St., Boston, MA. Schedule: Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 4:00 and 8:00pm, and Sunday at 3:00pm. Ticket Prices: $14.00-$46.00. Information: 617-933-8600. For more information visit the SpeakEasy Stage website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgepublications.com.