By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Besides being Friday the 13th, the opening night performance of The Women, the Clare Boothe Luce comedy at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, unfolded under a big, fat full moon. With 19 actresses playing the 42 women's roles (there are no men in the show), that's risking the hormonal equivalent of Three Mile Island. But if there were any meltdowns, nuclear or otherwise, they happened only onstage and in character in a production that celebrates girl power in all its hysterical glory.
Every scene in this two-act romp is set in what quaintly used to be known as women's domains: bridge table, exercise studio, hair salon, boutique changing room, boudoir, bubble bath, obstetrical ward and, finally, the anteroom of a posh nightclub's pee-and-powder place. There's a kitchen, too, but the only gals in there are hired help, serving up expository tidbits about the main characters to move the plot along. The leading ladies in the story are upper-crust types who wouldn't risk chipping a Jungle Red nail doing something as ordinary as washing a stewpot.
The Women, written in 1936, may be regarded by some of the feminist persuasion as antiquated in its attitudes toward marriage (a must), infidelity (frowned upon but easily forgiven), divorce (shameful) and careers (the one character who likes having one is written as a tweedy, virginal lesbian always heading off on safari). But in CTD's elegant and energized staging under the direction of Susan Sargeant, the play seems fresh, alive and surprisingly modern, coming across as perhaps the grandma of all Sex and the City episodes.
Main character Mary (played by Lisa Fairchild and grandly referred to again and again as "Mrs. Stephen Haines") is a combination of Carrie, the smart, sensible city girl, and Charlotte, the sweet and loyal Upper East Side wife. Mary fights to keep her man, even as he's off rogering the gold-digging hussy named Crystal (Kristen Blevins James) he met at the perfume counter at Saks (she was selling and he was buying...more than perfume). Mary's best friends are the über-bitchy Sylvia Fowler (Morgana Shaw), who's Samantha without the potty mouth; wisecracking, man-hating Nancy (Marisa Diotalevi), who could be Miranda minus a law degree; and Peggy (Allison Rogers), the younger version of Charlotte, trying desperately to get knocked up so she can play the mommy game like all the other ladies who lunch. There's also perpetually pregnant Edith (Brandi Andrade), a broody hen with little affection for either her husband or their squalling brats.
The play begins with the girls playing a mean game of cards in Mary's swanky apartment, but before all the watercress sandwiches are gone, they're dealing each other dirty. Sylvia can't wait to tell Edith about Stephen's wandering eye--a tidbit she's picked up from a yappy manicurist (Sara Menix, terrific in this and two other roles). When Sylvia's out of the room, her gossip is trumped with the revelation that her husband is on the make too. So is Edith's. There are more references to cheating spouses in the opening scenes than in the country music top 10. Appropriate then that the second half of The Women finds everyone holed up at a dude ranch in Reno, waiting for divorce papers. They change partners and keep right on two-stepping.
If the offstage men are portrayed as horny scoundrels by Luce, women aren't exactly heroic either. They pull out the long knives at every opportunity and reveal each other's secrets with abandon. Loyalty isn't their strong suit. "I'd love to do Mrs. Fowler's nails," the mannish Nancy quips of her "friend" Sylvia, "right down to the wrist with a great big buzz saw."
So what's so good about this play? Well, The Women holds up like a Warner underwire bra and snaps like a Playtex girdle. Now 70 years old, it's full of juicy Luce quips that ring truer than ever. Bimbos still steal hubsters from good wives. Women still fight the flab with crazy diets and manic exercising. Plenty of secretaries--called "office wives" in the play--still ache with unrequited love for their bosses. And the obsession with looks? Hell, we haven't come all that far since the 1930s, babies. If anything, we're much, much more obsessed with all things physical (as are men, for that matter). Worrying about her aging countenance, one of the ladies in the play muses that wrinkles are "time's little mice." Today at least there's a new poison that kills them: Botox.
And be it 1936 or 2006, many a smart gal has trouble finding a mate and being accepted without malice by members of her own sex. Nancy, Luce's most Dorothy Parker-like character, observes that "practically nobody ever misses a clever woman." Amen, sister.
A big mistake many productions make is modernizing The Women, usually for budget reasons. All those period costumes add up, and the leading characters change clothes every whipstitch, including scenes in lingerie, western wear and evening dresses. Keeping the play in its period for the CTD production was a wise decision by director Sargeant, known for her in-depth research on whatever she's directing. These women look gorgeous in the frocks, hair and makeup by Christina Dickson. And most of the cast has caught the style of '30s comedies in their rapid-fire speech patterns (particularly Shaw, who's a standout as Sylvia). The Art Deco set by Randel Wright features a pair of arched mirrors that swivel to denote changes of scene against a twinkly backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Visually, it all says sleek, chic and sophisticated.