The Luce-y Show

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.

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!"

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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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner