note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Mary Haines ….. Fay Gerbes
Sylvia Fowler ….. Susan Cartiglia
Countess de Lage ….. Gillian Mackay-Smith
Edith Potter ….. Carolyn Elliott
Peggy Day ….. Danielle Kline
Nancy Blake ….. Monica Cerra
Crystal Allen ….. Jordan Gill
Little Mary ….. Olivia Wise
Mrs. Morehead ….. Carrie Moretti
Miriam Aarons ….. Leanne Kramer
Jane ….. Jen O’Connor
Ensemble: Casey Cipriani, Rebecca King, Annamarie La Bella, Mercedes M. Molina, Janelle Poirier, Sarah Ragoobarsingh, Beth Reardon, Anna Waldron, Emily Waniewski
Northeastern’s current production of Clare Booth Luce’s THE WOMEN may disappoint those expecting a carbon copy of the 1939 MGM film classic, where catty, flamboyant women – dressed in the latest fashions – battle it out over that elusive prey, Man. Instead, director Ron Heneghan and his student cast present us with a stripped-down “interpretation”, which, once I got over my disappointment, I found to be fascinating, albeit half-baked. But, still, an “A” for Effort.
THE WOMEN can be viewed as a Park Avenue morality play: socialite Mary Haynes loses her beloved husband Stephen to gold-digger Crystal Allen and, Dante-like, must pass through some of Hell’s spirals before she can reclaim him. She is aided, abetted, commented on and/or betrayed by various angels and imps in the forms of family, friends, servants and the dreaded working class. (No men appear in the play.) Does THE WOMEN still work? Yes and no. The lines continue to crackle and hiss, but this vanished world of 1930s high society may strike today’s audiences as hopelessly decadent: Mary and her circle are right out of 18th century France – bored aristocrats who vacillate between pleasure and mischief, Youth (holding onto it) and Age (postponing it) – and All is Done to serve MAN. (As I mentioned several months ago regarding the men of GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS, I find it equally hard to believe that these women would be acting like this 24/7.) To top it off, the moral center of THE WOMEN has shifted: when the play is revived nowadays, the noble but tedious, ever-suffering Mary is eclipsed by the Bitches, who, if not loveable, at least supply the snap to keep the play alive and the audience awake. (If poor Mary were a Warner Brothers cartoon character, Bugs Bunny would hold out to us his drawing of a leaking faucet, i.e. “Drip”.)
So what is a director to do, especially with a cast of young women in their late ‘teens/ early 20s, who, no doubt, must view their grandmothers’ world as a very Dark Age indeed? Mr. Heneghan has chosen to do THE WOMEN in near-Brechtian fashion: thus, these young women play Ms. Luce’s characters while at the same time commenting on them, i.e. “We’re not REALLY like this.” And it works – sort of.
As the audience enters the Studio Theatre, they are faced with a playing area filled with random furniture and props (some period; some not), placed here and there in warehouse fashion. Little by little, members of the cast enter through the back wall, chatting among themselves and exploring the area where they will be spending the next several hours. Whatever clothes they are wearing – be it costumes or their own – will become the outer skins of their characters. When the final members of the ensemble have wandered in – and ‘tis a large one – they re-arrange enough of the furniture to set up for the first scene. Those women not in the scene retire to the sidelines to act as a sort of Chorus – murmuring, hooting, applauding – and THE WOMEN begins. At the end of each scene, the actresses break character and join the others in setting up for the next one – and so it goes to the very end. Recorded music – some of it in period; most of it, not – fill in the gaps between scene changes.
This concept could possibly work with established actresses who can do a conventional WOMEN and thus know when and how to deconstruct the play – a variation on a familiar theme. But much of THE WOMEN’s sophistication lies beyond the students’ grasps, anyway (ah, youth!); today’s soap operas – where anything goes – seem to be their reference points (though Act Two’s celebrated hair-pulling scene is quite, quite lame). A director and his cast must never forget that Ms. Luce’s women are also ladies in the social sense (finishing school/night at the opera LADIES) and a sense of class differences must be established; unfortunately, with one exception, these actresses telegraph a blunt, classless society (no pun intended) circa 2002 with much of what they say and do.
That exception is the wonderful Gillian Mackay-Smith as the often-married Countess de Lage. Her mannerisms are pure 1930s dowager – broad, but never over-the-top – and she earns much of the evening’s true laughter for her pains (may she continue to grow as a comedienne; it’s too early for her to rest on any laurels that are thrown her way – including my own!). Fay Gerbes is a luscious-looking Mary, though she often looks lost or uncomfortable playing what to her, no doubt, must seem a Very Stupid Woman. (At play’s end, when Ms. Gerbes displays her fingernails while declaiming the famous line, “Jungle Red!”, it comes as a shock to see that her nails aren’t painted at all – why?) Ms. Gerbes is nicely contrasted with Jordan Gill’s Crystal Allen – Lemon Yogurt meets Beef Jerky. Ms. Gill is all wrong as the gold-digging salesgirl: lean, hard, with a rocker’s near-androgyny; yet she fascinated me with her cobra persona – funny and cutting at the same time (she has a marvelous “slow burn”). Susan Cartiglia and Danielle Kline, though amusing, might as well wear “BITCH” or “BIMBO” signs around their respective necks for all their unsubtle playing of Top Cat Sylvia Fowler and dum-dum Peggy Day (what Park Avenue men would put up with them?). Carrie Moretti brings a nice sophisticated style to the wise Mrs. Moreland (Mary’s mother), but she has been directed to appear bitter, not all-knowing and all-forgiving (she must be a survivor of infidelity for Mary to emulate). And talk about a time warp! Mrs. Moreland utters the play’s second most famous line: “Living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.” What got a laugh back in 1936 makes you blink today.
An arresting image: at play’s end, the stage right doors open in a blaze of sun, and the entire cast brandishes mirrors and other reflecting articles, scattering colorful diamonds of light all around them.
“A” for Effort. “C” for Performance. With a gold star for Ms. Mackay-Smith.