Claire Boothe Luce's The Women was recently revived at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, a production I happened to catch one evening on television. It featured Cynthia Nixon, best known as Miranda in Sex and the City, as the wronged wife Mary Haines and Kristen Johnston as her catty pseudo-friend Sylvia. Though I was aware, while watching, of the play's retro shallowness, I did find it mildly amusing. This was partly because of the stylishness of the production, partly because of these two actresses. Nixon's Mary was elegant, but she was also vulnerable. She had depths the playwright hadn't provided -- hardly oceanic, but enough to gain our sympathy. As for the statuesque Johnston -- who brought such goony comic shenanigans to Third Rock From the Sun -- she was so full of blithe, blitzy energy that it was a pleasure watching her gossip and scheme.
Unless it's done with that degree of talent and class, I can see no reason at all for reviving this odd little period artifact. At the Arvada Center, the sets are well-designed and ingeniously mounted on the turntable stage, the costumes are fun, and it's interesting to pick out the actresses one has seen in more satisfying vehicles from the 31 women who populate the stage. But by the end of the evening, the main thing I felt was a sense of nausea at the sourness of the script.
The Women concerns a group of obscenely wealthy matrons gossiping, getting their nails done, clawing for advantage and attempting to destroy one another. One of them churns out unloved baby after unloved baby as insurance that her pampered lifestyle will continue. (The Women was written in 1936, at the height of the Depression, a fact we're periodically reminded of by minor characters.) Mary, who has thought herself happily married, finds out that her husband is cheating on her, with the silent knowledge and assent of her supposed friends, including Sylvia. After a period of sorrow, she learns that she must sharpen her claws to get him back. One of the few almost-sympathetic characters is her mother, who urges her to pretend ignorance about the infidelity so that she can keep her house and money.
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When it was first staged, The Women was hailed by some reviewers as witty, even brilliant, but the play contains only one joke, endlessly retold. It concerns the natural hatred women supposedly feel for each other. Here's a sample of Luce's repartee:
"Most blondes are frigid."
"Maybe that's just a dirty piece of brunette propaganda."
Catfights are especially funny; hell, the very word itself is funny. When two of the characters engage in an actual catfight and one of them gets bitten, she remarks, "She's drawn blood. I need a rabies shot."
Of the Arvada Center's large, all-woman cast, several are extremely talented. But no one is really shown at her best in these cartoonish roles. Penny Dwyer is a poised Mary Haines, her every word and gesture signaling professional competence and smooth niceness, but not much more. Joan Staples is highly skilled, too, as the bitchy Sylvia, but she never goes sufficiently over the top to be interesting. The usually sparkling comedienne Amie MacKenzie makes the posing, preening, husband-stealing Crystal Allen emerald-hard. She could be a lot funnier if the role weren't so two-dimensional. Catherine di Bella is round and comical, trundling around the stage as the ever-pregnant Edith. Three actresses manage almost to transcend the material. Billie McBride plays the wigged-out, prancing, absurd Countess De Lave so full-out that you actually do feel for her just a little -- and you laugh at her a lot. Jessica Austgen gives the Irish maid, Jane, just the right amount of bewildered dopiness. And Pam Clifton makes Lucy the one character who seems somewhat grounded. Several other fine actresses, including Susan d'Autremont, Susie Leiser and Patty Mintz Figel, are simply wasted here.
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These days, many women feel that feminism has prevailed. We're all equal, and we can afford to laugh at dated prejudices like Luce's, especially if they're accompanied by ingenious costumes and people mincing around on stage making elegant little moues and waving cigarette holders. We know now that women can genuinely like each other; they're not solely defined by their relationships with men; they're capable of self-sufficiency and deductive thought -- even while menstruating. Never mind that many women are still starving -- literally -- for a competitive edge, and others are having their toes cut down so they can fit into Manolo Blahnik shoes. We're so emancipated that we can take lines like the following, spoken by a character who left her abusive husband, in stride: "A lot of women in this hotel need a beating worse than me." The man sitting behind me found it hilarious.
It's worth taking a look at what a writer of genuine brilliance and wit thought about relationships among women. In her essay "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf notes that male fiction is full of women who hate one another. She picks up a novel by a Mary Carmichael and is delighted to find these words: "Chloe likes Olivia."
"For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it," Woolf writes, "she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up and down, not knowing where one is stepping... I wanted to see how Mary Carmichael set to work to catch those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and colored light of the other sex."