The Luce-y Show

With The Women, CTD tests the Clare-voyance of a 1930s single-sex comedy

The best reason to keep The Women as Luce intended is that it speaks from one generation to those down the line about how women of a certain era acted with other women. We still have a lot to learn about being kinder to each other.

CTD's cast really gets it, avoiding any spillover into outright camp. There's one exception, unfortunately. The lead, Lisa Fairchild, is all wrong as the stoic Mary Haines. In the 1939 George Cukor movie (with uncredited script doctoring by F. Scott Fitzgerald), the role was played by that glamorous, cross-eyed goody-goody Norma Shearer. In the 1956 movie remake (retitled The Opposite Sex), it was America's little vanilla wafer, June Allyson. Fairchild is right out of the Allyson mold. She's bottle-blond and bland. Everything about her seems to be squinting, including her hair, and she lacks both the polish and panache to play a lady of high society. It's the weakest bit of casting in the show.

The best performance comes from bubbly Laura Yancey as the five-times-married Countess de Lage, one of the unhappy guests at the divorcees' Reno ranch. "L'amour! L'amour!" she burbles, kicking a booted foot in the air. With golden ringlets bouncing, she's a middle-aged goddess still in the market for a studly young lover. "What else can a woman doooo with her youth but give it to a man?" asks the Countess. And after she gives what's left of hers to a no-good chap in chaps, she declares, "You can't expect noblesse oblige from a cowboy!"

Sylvia Fowler (Morgana Shaw) conspires with Crystal Allen (Kristen Blevins James) in CTD's elegant and energized The Women.
Arlen Kennedy
Sylvia Fowler (Morgana Shaw) conspires with Crystal Allen (Kristen Blevins James) in CTD's elegant and energized The Women.

Sargeant achieves an unusual casting coup by putting tall and zaftig Kristen Blevins James in the role of the man-stealing Crystal. Think Mary Astor crossed with Merle Oberon. Such strong features. She really comes across as a pretty viper in her bubble bath scene--designed with a stunning visual surprise by the always inventive Wright.

Clare Boothe Luce was a Vogue and Vanity Fair writer when she penned The Women, which was regarded as a scathing send-up of the same types of Park Avenue "social X-rays" dissected in print decades later by Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities) and Truman Capote (Answered Prayers). Luce, married to the president of Time Inc., would become a war correspondent for Life magazine. She won a congressional seat from Connecticut and then was appointed ambassador to Italy. She never wrote another hit play, but after The Women, did she really need to? It certainly stands up far better than the work of one of her main contemporaries, Lillian Hellman (The Children's Hour, Watch on the Rhine).

Luce knew well the strengths and weaknesses inherent in her own sex. She included the good, bad and ugly in The Women. Only one other Broadway show ever put so many characters on one stage with such finely sharpened claws: Cats.

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