Clare Luce's 'The Women' no longer shocks

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Dec. 10, 2001 at 1:05 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- When Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women" was first produced on Broadway in 1936, getting a man and keeping a man was the career of many women and divorce was something to be avoided unless your husband took up openly with a floozy or even a clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Luce knew what she was writing about when she penned her catty comedy about her own sex that shocked New York society and went on to become a popular 1939 movie. She was a token second wife for Henry Luce, founder of the Time-Life magazine empire, having broken up his first marriage. Fame as a Connecticut congresswoman and U.S. ambassador to Italy still lay far in the future for this beautiful blonde powerhouse of a woman.

"The Women" no longer shocks, but it has its own brand of broad humor that can still be entertaining if you are in the mood for it. If you are not, this is a play that will seem terribly dated and misguidedly vulgarized so that the women of Manhattan's upper social circle that make up its cast are made to seem as common as the women they think are after their husbands.

The blame for failing to make the Roundabout Theater Company revival of "The Women" at the American Airlines Theater as sparkling as it could have been must be pinned on director Scott Elliott who has not yet been forgiven for his campily gay revival of Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" last season.

Elliott apparently is ignorant of the fine line between Old Money and New Money society that was just beginning to blur when Luce, then a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, wrote her first and only play in the spirit of English Restoration comedy.

Because of this, only Mary Haines -- whose husband's affair with the Saks clerk topples what she thought was a happy marriage -- has any of the class-bred gentility generally expected of women listed in the 1936 Social Register. Cynthia Nixon, one of Broadway's favorite actresses and a star of TV's "Sex and the City," plays Mary elegantly, even nobly, and always in character.

The same can be said of Mary Lou Wilson in the role of Mary's mother, Mrs. Morehead, a society matron in the Colony Club mold that has never disappeared from the Manhattan social scene. Otherwise the all-woman cast has been directed to make this play, intended by Luce as a feminist critique about women as competitors, a down and dirty catfight worthy of trailer trash rather than Park Avenue blue bloods.

Granted that some of these women probably married above their commonplace origins, as Luce herself did, there is no reason to have them move and speak without the sophistication and grace of women who have learned how to conduct themselves in public even if they can pull each other's hair in private. Luce wrote about real women of her acquaintance, not caricatures.

One of the worst offenders is Jennifer Coolidge in the role of ever-pregnant Edith Potter, who is bitchy to everyone including her babies in a manner more off-putting than it is funny. She is, in fact, so grotesque that you wonder if that is really Coolidge under the makeup or some drag queen who cut his teeth on playing Joan Crawford or Rosalind Russell, both of whom were starred in the movie version of "The Women."

Jennifer Tilly plays Crystal Allen, the "other woman" in the Haines divorce, in a less cartoonish manner, making us at least see what makes her attractive to Mary's husband despite her coarseness. She has been directed to rise stark naked from her bubble bath, director Elliott's twist on her reaction to a remark about her hair color.

Also consistent in her characterization is Kristen Johnson ("Third Rock From the Sun") as Sylvia Fowler, a predatory, trouble-making friend of Mary's who gets some of the juiciest lines in the play and some of the most outlandishly "chic" costumes. If Johnson had been allowed to play the role with aristocratic affectations instead of sexual innuendo, Sylvia might have been more believable.

Lynn Collins is delectable as the former chorus girl who betrays her friend Sylvia by seducing her husband, and Rue McClanahan almost steals the show as a tippling, down-to-earth, much-married heiress whose last husband was a no-good count. McClanahan has picked out a cowboy movie star as her next spouse, but that is not to be as the result of one of the plays' several subplots.

The cast is rounded out by Amy Ryan as Peggy Day, a newlywed who is taking her wifely duties all too seriously, and Lisa Emery as Nancy Blake, a novelist who is happy to be a voyeur of her friends' marital imbroglios. Luce intended Nancy as an intellectual sounding board, but Emery has been directed to play her as a boring outsider, probably a lesbian.

To top it all, Elliott sends his girls out for their curtain call in lingerie including those 1930s teddies, an unnecessary gimmick that is unforgivable considering the physical idiosyncrasies of several middle age actresses. Luce's play is about women revealing themselves as they really are, but does Elliott have to go this far?

Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, an inspired selection, has designed the lingerie as well as the show's wide range of costumes for an era when fashion often had the appearance of ludicrous costuming. Derek McLane's clever set consists of skyscrapers that open up into opulent Art Deco interiors and an amusing Reno divorce ranch. If costumes and settings could make a show, this revival of "The Women" would be a hit.

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