Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Women"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi


by Claire Booth Luce
directed by Scott Edmiston

Nancy Blake … Nancy E. Carroll
Peggy Day … Aimee Doherty
Edith Potter … Kerry A. Dowling
Sylvia Fowler … Maureen Keiller
Mary Haines … Anne Gottlieb
Jane … Elizabeth Hayes
Countess de Lage … Mary Klug
Olga; Lucy; Dowager … Ellen Colton
1st Hairdresser; Helene … Sheryl Faye
2nd Hairdresser; Debutante … Courtney Branigan
Miriam Aarons … Sonya Raye
Little Mary … Sophie Rich
Mrs. Morehead … Alice Duffy
1st Saleswoman; Sadie … Shelley Brown
Model; Miss Trimmerback; Cigarette Girl ... Elisa MacDonald
2nd Saleswoman ... Kerrie Kitto
Crystal Allen... Georgia Lyman
Instructress ... Carly Sakolove
Maggie ... Sandra Heffley
Miss Watts ... Amanda Good Hennessey
Nurse ... Sandra Heffley
Casino Roof Ladies … Sheryl Fay; Amanda Good Hennessey; Kerrie Kitto; Carly Sakolove

“Straight off the boat. A rough crossing. Feeling her worst when the liner docks. Yet that evening there’s a party she positively must attend. No getting out of it. Only a few hours before she must think of dressing for dinner. What to do? While her maid unpacks, she hails a taxi and drives to Elizabeth Arden’s Salon … There she is taken firmly but gently in hand. Skin yellow and sluggish looking? What she needs, evidently, are special oil and circulation treatments, to clarify the skin and bring it back to its normal freshness and vividness. Clever fingers work warm oil and cream into her cheeks. To tighten the surface of the face and charm away that lined and jaded appearance, she has an Elizabeth Arden Masque. Next, an Ardena Bath to remove the lingering traces of fatigue and stiffness … Finally, a stimulating turn in the Exercise Room. Wonderful to feel youth and vitality begin to creep back into her limbs! Now she’s read --- and more than ready --- to confront the universe. New hope. New Outlook. A new face. And, to accentuate her beauty --- increase her magnetism --- underline the effect of her personal charm --- one of those exquisite Elizabeth Arden make-ups, specially designed to harmonize with the color of her new dress. A last touch of exactly the right Ardena Lipstick. She steps out --- walking on air --- the world at her feet.”

--- text from an ad for the Elizabeth Arden beauty salons, c. 1937

“She was a wonderful woman, and such a feeling as vulgar jealousy could take no hold on her. She was well aware of my father’s constant infidelities, but simply ignored them. Before my father died, in 1876, he lay ill in bed for many days. And every morning a woman in black and closely veiled used to come to our house in Merrion Square, and unhindered either by my mother or anyone else used to walk straight upstairs to Sir William’s bedroom and sit down at the head of his bed, and so sit there all day, without ever speaking a word or once raising his veil. She took no notice of anybody in the room, and nobody paid any attention to her. Not one woman in a thousand would have tolerated her presence, but my mother allowed it, because she knew that my father loved this woman and felt that it must be a joy and a comfort to have her there by his dying bed. And I am sure that she did right not to judge that last happiness of a man who was about to die, and I am sure that my father understood her apparent indifference, understood that it was not because she did not love him that she permitted her rival’s presence, but because she loved him very much, and died with his heart full of gratitude and affection for her.”

--- Oscar Wilde’s tribute to his mother

* * *

The above quotes touch upon two themes in Claire Boothe Luce’s THE WOMEN, her comedy of manners set in 1930s New York café society and played out with an all-female cast: the first quote evokes a long-vanished world with distinct class differences and where a woman’s face and figure is her fortune; the second, how should a woman in such society react to her husband having an extramarital affair --- in Ms. Luce’s cat-fight, the noble Mary Haines loses her husband Stephen to the gold-digging Crystal Allen and wins him back only after sharpening her own claws. Ms. Luce began as an illegitimate, working-class child and, using both her looks and her brains, moved up the ladder to become a leading socialite, editor, politician --- you name it, she seems to have done it --- thus, Ms. Luce was able to write from both sides of the coin with equal ease; the 1939 film adaptation has become such a camp icon that one is pleasurably surprised that the original stage version is a well-written, shrewdly observant comedy that pulls no punches and which the Hayes Code toned down before it leapt upon the silver screen. If you can get past the quips and the hair-pulling, you will notice how Ms. Luce subtly turns from Stephen’s adultery to Mary being the one in the wrong for buckling at the first frost in her marriage and whose pride demands a divorce, paving the way for Stephen to marry Crystal because it is the gentlemanly thing to do (Ms. Luce takes extra pains to point out that Stephen is not a cad by nature). Not listening to her mother who would approve of Lady Wilde’s worldliness, Mary learns about true love and devotion the hard way but has she changed for the better or will one-upmanship replace the sanctity of her marriage? Has Stephen learned his lesson or will he wander, again, and was he worth fighting for, in the first place? THE WOMEN’s bitchery is so seductive that one may forget that Mary is as pampered as her lady friends; Crystal may not be sympathetic but her actions are understandable: a Depression girl has to eat. An entirely different play could be written from Crystal’s point of view: the underdog, moving in on these fat cats…

The SpeakEasy production is so entertaining, like its COMPANY, two seasons ago, that I don’t see why SpeakEasy doesn’t produce more of the classics as well as New England premieres; despite the costumes and the classical setting looking budget-conscious and some of the hairstyles being anachronistic, Scott Edmiston directs with a sure period hand and if the Lyric’s 1776, still playing down the street, shows what Boston (male) actors can do, SpeakEasy provides an impressive showcase for its actresses. Anne Gottlieb is an inspired choice for Mary, her wine-dark persona saving her Poor Little Rich Girl from being so much sugar-water and her throbbing declamation firmly focuses the play in the character’s evolution. Maureen Keiller, who earned an Addison last season for her classy Sapphic turn in PULP, is back on familiar turf as Sylvia, Queen of the Cats --- Ms. Keiller would be wise to put her mugging on hold and continue stretching untried muscles. Georgia Lyman, a newcomer to me, is the evening’s stunner: her Crystal Allen is such a glittering pair of scissors that she recalls Nathanial West’s description of Faye Greener in THE DAY OF THE LOCUST: “If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream.” (mind you, this is intended as a compliment) --- somebody should next coax Ms. Lyman into something fluffy to balance such a startling first impression. Kerry A. Dowling has been Boston’s Earth Mother for so long that there is no surprise at her being cast as the eternally-pregnant Edith Potter nor that she filters the role through her maternal warmth --- Christopher Chew as Doc and Ms. Dowling as Lola in COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, please. Alice Duffy and Mary Klug, respectively Mary’s mother and the much-married Countess de Lage, give lovely studies of old, dignified women; Nancy E. Carroll wanders through the evening reciting the stage directions to build up her cameo role of a caustic lady novelist --- it is good to see Ms. Carroll take on cocktail comedy as her starkness translates well into drollness --- and Elizabeth Hayes is such a sunshiny presence as the maid that she should be given more center-stage opportunities as demonstrated in Lyric’s SPITFIRE GRILL, several seasons ago; Boston theatre would be a dimmer place should it lose her half-moon smile.

Act One ends with the ensemble singing Mr. Porter’s “Down in the Depths” which in another context would be charming, indeed; if this is Mr. Edmiston waving “hello” to his audience, he has already made his presence felt --- that beautifully-orchestrated ensemble didn’t direct itself.

"The Women" (22 September - 21 October)
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA
1 (617) 482-3279

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide