(June 2010) We still think Clare Boothe Luce’s wicked comedy The Women is a great play. But the Shaw Festival’s production of this 1938 play — our long-awaited first chance to see it on stage — doesn’t nearly do it justice. The performances were uneven, and the direction didn’t seem to have any particular focus.
The Women is the story of a circle of Park Avenue socialites, their amours, and their cutthroat competition for money and men. We meet them at a bridge party at the home of Mary Haines (Jenny Young), the one woman in the play whom the other women actually seem to like — up to a point. Mary doesn’t gossip like the rest, she isn’t looking to upgrade her husband as some other woman’s expense, and she’s a good mother.
But when the women learn that Mary’s husband Stephen has set up a secret love nest with Crystal Allen (Moya O’Connell), an ambitious floozy who sells perfume at Saks, they turn their claws on Mary and her marriage. Sylvia Fowler (Deborah Hay) urges Mary to visit a gossipy manicurist who, Sylvia knows, is sure to tell Mary the story of her husband’s affair.
Mary’s mother Mrs. Morehead (Sharry Flett) wisely counsels her daughter to do nothing and to wait until Stephen gets tired of Crystal. But her friends, maliciously relishing the the downfall of Mary’s “perfect” marriage, urge her to give him an ultimatum and, if necessary, the boot. When Edith Potter (Jenny L. Wright) “accidentally” reveals the affair to a gossip columnist, Mary gives in and forces the issue; it isn’t long until she’s heading off to Nevada for a divorce. (There are no men in the cast, but the women talk about men like Stephen Haines so much that we form mental images of them and are surprised at the play’s end to realize that we never actually saw them.)
For these women, making disparaging comments about any “friend” who happens to be out of hearing range is casual sport. But director Alisa Palmer has made the show depend so heavily on laugh lines about the women’s gossiping that the play simply doesn’t deliver the biting satire that it should.
In a moment of inspiration, for example, the playwright chose a maternity ward, of all places, as a setting for a scene that focuses on the utter self-absorption of one of the women. Edith Potter, who has just given birth, drops cigarette ash on her nursing newborn’s face, is amused when a visitor tearfully confides that she is getting a divorce, and is gleeful at the marital shipwrecks of Sylvia Fowler and Mary Haines.
The scene was intended to shock; Ms. Luce surely expected it to inspire not simply laughter, but horrified laughter. In this show, though, the scene’s biggest laugh comes when Edith brightens and instantly forgets how tired she is at the prospect of hearing new gossip. The sight gag overwhelms the point of the scene.
The actresses consistently fail to deliver lines with the malicious edge that they need. It’s as if the director is willing to let us laugh at female stereotypes (don’t women love to gossip!), but unwilling to show us the sheer awfulness of the amorality of the women. Perhaps Ms. Palmer was afraid the play would lose its appeal as a comedy if the women were truly as unpleasant as Ms. Luce conceived them. But this show needs fewer cheap laughs and more piss and vinegar.
Jenny Young serves well enough as Mary Haines (according to Clare Boothe, “She is what most of us think our happily married daughters are like”), but we thought the only truly satisfactory performances were by Kelli Fox, as the unmarried writer Nancy Blake, who describes herself as a “frozen asset” and views the other women with detached amusement, Sharry Flett, as the gracious, aristocratic Mrs. Morehead, and Moya O’Connell, as the ruthless, predatory Crystal Allen.
In general, though, nothing ties the performances of the women together. They simply don’t act like women from a closed, elite social circle; they’re all over the place. Deborah Hay, for example, has the delicious role of the clever, treacherous Sylvia Fowler. But she plays the role if Sylvia were a sassy hat-check girl who’d married up, acting as if she were still playing the uncouth Billie in Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival a year ago. You’d never take Sylva for a member of fashionable society. Again, we fault the director; Ms. Hay’s excellent performance in this year’s One Touch of Venus (see this link) shows that she’s hardly a one-trick pony.
And you couldn’t have concluded from the evidence of this show that Jenny L. Wright (as Edith), Nicola Correia-Damude (as Miriam Aarons), and Beryl Bain (as Peggy Day) are especially good actresses.
The Women on film: If you see the abominable 2008 movie The Women advertised on Netflix, don’t waste your time and money. See Emsworth’s review. Look instead for the classic 1939 film directed by George Cukor, with Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell; it uses much of the dialogue from the play.