Girl power

"If God had meant us to think with our wombs, then why did he give us a brain?"

You have to chew on that, one of playwright Clare Boothe Luce's most famous quotes, for a while, and even then, you're still not sure what you're tasting. I interpret it as a laudatory sentiment, as an expression of Luce's exasperation with women (and, by extension, anyone) who put gender at the center of their identity, who fritter away their lives with that cherished but deeply foolish idea that men and women barely reside on the same planet, much less in the same species. Startling, really, because the statement implicitly attacks both institutional sexism and the institution of feminism, which has too often encouraged women to interpret all of life through a hormonal prism. They're certainly not alone in this peculiarly heralded variety of solipsism -- men like to get drunk on their own testosterone and wave their dicks around, firing them into the air like New Year's revelers in Oak Cliff.

No such munitions are on display in The Women, Luce's lemon-tart 1936 comedy that, as its title implies, features not a single man onstage. Theatre Three and visiting director Niki Flacks make you wonder why this alarmingly relevant comedy hasn't been revived more often throughout the decades. Certainly, George Cukor's 1939 movie version is beloved for the balletic heights of bitchery the actresses reach. But that flick is -- dare I say it? -- a very emasculated version of Luce's wiser, harsher, more condemnatory stage script. This is the kind of thing you could (and should) argue about endlessly over coffee after the theater, but I contend that the playwright wasn't taking a snapshot of women unguarded and unabridged, as some folks continuously insist about this play. This ain't a slice of life, folks; it's a giant hunk of fable torn out of the American female stereotype, with the lesson permeating your nostrils like smelling salts. Clare Boothe Luce isn't just trouncing betrayal and gossip and drama thirst in a female context; she's saying that the obsession with what it "means" to be a woman directly fuels all that. In other words, the straitjacket doesn't keep the madness at bay; the straitjacket causes it.

After The Boyfriend, Theatre Three offers another sumptuously professional, engrossing dip into the 20th century for its "Celebrate the Century" season. The theater-in-the-round at the Quadrangle spills over with 19 actresses playing 37 different roles, and it's a small and welcome seasonal miracle that director Flacks has harnessed all this ability and energy and directed it out toward the audience as a radiant, sometimes icy glow. Hell, this is a show where the set changes are delivered with sass and panache and clever timing. Bruce Coleman's eye-catching but unobtrusive period costumes play their role here too, cloaking these women in the stylish armor they need to battle it out in spas, powder rooms, bedrooms, kitchens -- ostensibly, over men, but more accurately, over the pride of maintaining their spurious feminine identities.

Whereas the Cukor film was drafted to punish the central character for being too independent, for desiring a divorce in the face of her husband's sexual betrayal with a brassy Macy's counter girl, Luce's play is far more ambivalent about the fate of Mary (Penelope Taylor). She's a New York socialite who, we come to understand, is terribly vulnerable not just from the material privileges she has received, but also because of her tendency to ignore the catty machinations of some of the other women in her life. She won't recognize the blows as they come from Sylvia (Leslie Alexander), a pathological backstabber and drama queen who's dishonest with everyone, especially herself.

Sylvia sees her destructive logorrhea as another symptom of estrus. She hears that Mary's husband is having an affair with Crystal (Nicole Case), a blonde retail tart who climbs the ladder of success horizontally. Sylvia sets Mary up to discover this herself, and we sit back and watch as Mary's plight is examined in painful but often hilarious detail by all the women in her life: People of every possible age, class, income, and education level use the cuckolded wife's dilemma to riff on what they think it means to be a woman.

In the end, The Women isn't about the female sex, but about an artificial definition of gender and how silly and cruel people can behave because they think they're based on the equipment they've got between their legs. Women aren't supposed to gossip any more than they're destined to have children or chase married men or tolerate their spouses' infidelity. Yet there are female characters on the Theatre Three stage who advocate all of these things based on ovarian rhetoric, hilariously oblivious to the fact that these chosen actions -- not their grim fate as "the weaker sex" -- are what's causing them so much unhappiness. When gender identity swallows individuality, choice is crippled, and people wreak the kind of havoc that makes this script so damned funny (and a little frightening) more than 60 years later. I was sitting in the audience thinking that a narrative should be written called The Men, which shows how similar chaos erupts in masculine circumstances, and then I realized it already has. It's called world history.

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Jimmy Fowler