Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.

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We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2012 season

Shaw

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season had three Bernard Shaw plays, plus My Fair Lady, but in 2012 the playbill will be back down to two.  Neither Misalliance nor The Millionairess is a major work, and The Millionairess won’t start up till late June. Last fall the Shaw Festival hosted a two-day forum on the “relevance” of Shaw, and everyone agreed solemnly that his plays are still very, very important. But even if the Shaw Festival sticks with its custom of putting on two Shaw plays every season, it seems clear that Shaw won’t necessarily be front and center in any given season anymore.

We do get it. Personally, we look forward to the Shaw plays, but some people who go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for theater avoid them like the plague.  Shaw isn’t like Shakespeare; he simply doesn’t have hard-core fans. According to a recent Shaw Festival press release, only 65,000 of the 274,800 tickets sold at the Shaw Festival in 2011 were for Shaw plays. The management brags that this is up from 50,000 and 52,500 for Shaw plays in 2009 and 2010, but that really doesn’t say much; it’s not surprising that three plays sold more tickets than two.

Emsworth is stoked about the lineup for 2012, despite what has become an annual disappointment: the Festival is still shying away from Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. Our earlier experiences with William Inge (in 2005), Githa Sowerby (in 2004 and 2008), and Terence Rattigan (also in 2008) left us wanting more of their plays, and in the 2012 season we get all three.  It’s rude to say it, but we find the Shaw Festival’s lineup for 2012 considerably more attractive top-to-bottom than the one at Stratford, which has only three Shakespeare plays and includes such head-scratchers as You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a Homer Simpson version of Macbeth.

Here’s what we think of the 2012 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge).  Bach in 2004, Emsworth and wife found the Shaw Festival production of William Inge’s Bus Stop so appealing that we saw it twice.  That show, a sexually charged story of folks stranded during a blizzard at a bus stop in the middle of Kansas, was directed by Jackie Maxwell, who will now direct Inge’s first successful play, Come Back, Little Sheba.

There’s likely to be plenty of middle-America passion in this show too, with regrets and recriminations. The protagonists are a midwestern chiropractor and the former beauty queen he had to marry twenty years earlier; their lives change when they take a college student into their home as a boarder. Corrine Kozlo and Ric Reid will play the lead roles.

Michael Ball

2. French Without Tears (Terence Rattigan).  French Without Tears was Rattigan’s first successful play. It’s a light comedy whose tone will surely be very different from the witty but sobering After the Dance, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2008. 

We were dazzled by After the Dance, our first Rattigan play (see this Emsworth post), and since then we’ve gone out of our way to dig deeper.  We’ve found and devoured copies of his plays The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and After the Dance, all of which are notable for their elegant construction, brilliant, subtle characterizations, and economical dialogue. We’ve also seen several movies based on Rattigan’s plays — he did a lot of screenwriting — including Separate Tables and The Browning Version (the classic 60-year-old British film versions), both of which we now rank among our very favorite movies, The Winslow Boy (again the original version), and The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, as well as The V.I.P.s, for which he wrote the screenplay.

All this reading and movie-watching has made Emsworth a serious fan of Terence Rattigan, and now we understand why Jackie Maxwell apparently thinks his plays worthy of being in rotation at the Shaw Festival along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noël Coward.  There were, incidentally, revivals of a couple of Rattigan plays in the London theaters this last year — perhaps Ms. Maxwell is simply riding the wave. We’re pleased to see that Michael Ball, still one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, will have a leading role in French Without Tears .

3. Misalliance (Bernard Shaw). By the time Shaw wrote Misalliance in 1909, his plays were beginning to rely less on believable plots and action and more on learned chatter — so much so that in Misalliance the characters themselves gripe about all the talking and preaching!  Poking a little fun at himself, probably, Shaw has Johnny Tarleton complain to his father about didactic novels:

I’ll bet what you like that I read more than you, though I don’t talk about it so much. Only, I don’t read the same books. I like a book with a plot in it. You like a book with nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing his own tail. I can stand a little of it, but a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing.

At the play’s end, Johnny’s father finally mumbles, “Well, I — er — well, I suppose — er — I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” His daughter’s reaction:

Hypatia [fervently] Thank goodness!

Misalliance has a lot of the same proto-absurdist elements as Heartbreak House, which Shaw wrote about eight years later. (See this post for a catalog of Emsworth’s grievances with Heartbreak House, which we saw again at the Shaw Festival this last summer.) In each play, residents and guests at a country house are menaced by aircraft, and in each an intruder bursts into their midst who — surprise — turns out to be part of someone’s past.  In each play characters are intensely attracted to one another on five minutes’ acquaintance, and in each an old coot falls for a young woman.

But there is still a lot of snappy stuff in Misalliance, and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Wade Bogert-O’Brien, a young actor whom we liked very well in last year’s Candida, will play the adventurous aviator Joey Percival. It’s not a lengthy play, as Shaw plays go.

4. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen). We continue to be dismayed that some of our favorite Shaw Festival performers, like Ben Carlson, Kelli Fox, Evan Buliung, and Deborah Hay, have migrated over to Stratford in the last several years. Even Christopher Newton, the Festival’s former Artistic Director, will be directing Shakespeare there in 2012. But one of the finest performers in the history of either company, Martha Henry, is coming to the Shaw Festival in 2012 to direct Hedda Gabler.

We’ve been trying to cultivate an appreciation for Ibsen, and for Netflix subscribers we can heartily recommend a 1973 film version of A Doll’s House starring Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Richardson that we saw just a couple of weeks ago. For all its enormous reputation we don’t know Hedda Gabler, which is about the hijinks of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Moya O’Connell, Patrick McManus, and Gray Powell will make up the play’s love triangle. This is just the sort of play that belongs in the Courthouse Theatre, where it will be staged.

In the work of Ibsen, said Emma Goldman, “lay all the instruments for the radical dissection of society.” Or, at least, that’s what E. L. Doctorov said she said in his novel Ragtime. (Doctorov probably didn’t entirely make this up; see this Goldman essay on Ibsen.) On the other hand, H. L. Mencken, a scribe whose judgment we generally respect, insisted that Ibsen was no “tin-pot radical” at all. According to Mencken, Ibsen “believed in all the things that the normal, law-abiding citizen of Christendom believes in, from democracy to romantic love, and from the obligations of duty to the value of virtue, and he always gave them the best of it in his plays.” We wonder which view of Ibsen Martha Henry’s direction will take.

5. Ragtime (musical based on the novel). Ragtime seemed to us the best of the E. L. Doctorov novels that we read, but we could never figure out how they could make a musical out of it, especially one that is almost entirely musical numbers and hardly any dialogue, like an opera.

The book includes more characters and subplots than could possibly be fit into a musical play. But Les Miserables was a much bigger book, and they made the best musical in 40 years out of it. We will soon find out. Thom Allison will play Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black piano player driven to extremes by racial oppression.  Emsworth himself has happily played much of Scott Joplin on the piano for years and hopes there will be plenty of ragtime music in this show.

6. His Girl Friday (Suzan-Lori Parks). This play’s title will be familiar to any fan of Hollywood screwball comedies, but the 1940 movie was adapted from a 1928 play called The Front Page. The play at the Shaw Festival in 2012 is an adaptation of both, done by the playwright John Guare (best known for Six Degrees of Separation) in 2003.  It’ll be closer to the movie than the play.

The Shaw Festival has hit big and missed big on classic American comedies. The hits include a couple of funniest things we’ve ever seen on stage, You Can’t Take It With You (1998 and 1999) and Born Yesterday (2009), but the misses include a disappointing The Women (2010) (see this post) and a sour, unfunny Three Men on a Horse (2004). The announcement that Benedict Campbell and Nicole Underhay will play the “Cary Grant” and “Rosalind Russell” roles, respectively, in His Girl Friday gives us reason to hope for this show. Jim Mezon is directing; it’s disappointing that he seems to be appearing as an actor in only one play in 2012 (a supporting role in Hedda Gabler).

Coward

7. Present Laughter (Noël Coward). Three years after a Shaw Festival season that included four Noël Coward shows, Coward is back. Garry Essendine, an actor in light comedies who is the lead character in this 1939 play, is a lot like Coward himself; several other characters are thought to have been based on some of his close friends and lovers. Steven Sutcliffe will play Garry Essendine.

8. A Man and Some Women (Githa Sowerby). Githa Sowerby is so obscure that she doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. (We’re thinking of rectifying that.) But Jackie Maxwell has pulled her out of obscurity; the Sowerby play The Stepmother, which we saw in 2008, gave us a wonderful evening of entertainment (see this Emsworth post). We know nothing about this 1914 play of Sowerby’s — probably no one else does, either — except that it involves money conflicts in a family consisting of a man and two spinster sisters.

9. The Millionairess (Bernard Shaw). This Shaw play is near the end of our list, but not because we’re not interested in it. One reason is that we have a mild crush on Nicole Underhay, who will play Epifania Fitzfassenden, a rich girl forbidden by her father’s will from marrying unless her fiance can turn 150 pounds into 50,000 pounds within six months. Shaw was 80 years old when he wrote The Millionairess, which we think is the last play Shaw wrote that had any real entertainment value.

10. Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein). The Shaw Festival’s one-hour-long lunchtime show in 2012 will be an opera! Leonard Bernstein’s songs tell the story of an American housewife and her white-collar husband. Like all the Shaw’s lunchtime shows, this one will be a great bargain at $32 per ticket. We thoroughly enjoyed Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and West Side Story at Stratford in 2009.

11. Helen’s Necklace (Carole Fréchette). In the new Studio Theatre space will be a play by French-Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette, presented in English. The story promises to be a modestly fantastical account of a woman who has lost a necklace in a city in the Middle East like Baghdad or Beirut. The lead role will be played by Tara Rosling, whom we remember as Eliza Doolitte in Pygmalion a few years back. This show runs for only a month and a half, starting in mid-July.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Shaw Festival

Tennessee Williams

(May 11, 2011)  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on the short list of plays that we’ll happily see anytime, anywhere. Such glorious poetry — and what else is it but poetry, for who really talks like the characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?  It’s magical how Tennessee Williams brought his characters alive by giving them lines no one would utter in ordinary speech and making them have conversations no ordinary people would have.  The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are as painfully real as can be.

In the Shaw Festival’s 2011 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which we saw in a mesmerizing preview performance last weekend, the poetry flows like honey from the lips of Moya O’Connell (a treat for the eyes as Maggie the Cat), Gray Powell (Brick), and Jim Mezon (Big Daddy).  Their characters could hardly be more vivid.

Anyone who has seen the bowdlerized movie version (Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor) will find this a much darker (and more explicit) show.  The long first act shows us only Brick and his sexually frustrated wife (the scenes of the play all take place in their bedroom in Big Daddy’s Mississippi delta mansion house), but through Maggie’s chatter we meet the rest of the Pollitt family as well.  Maggie and Brick also introduce us to a major character who never appears in the play, Brick’s late friend Skipper, and to the play’s great mystery: what Brick and Skipper really felt for one another, why Skipper took his own life, and why Brick no longer has any interest in anything but drinking bourbon until he feels the “click”.

The play’s first act leaves us persuaded that there is nothing left between Maggie and Brick. But the second act teases us with the notion that there is still some palpable affection between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (Jim Mezon).  (The mere appearance of Mezon, once again a superb stage presence, noticeably ratchets up the play’s energy level.)  Father and son find common ground with their mutual detestation of “mendacity,” but Big Daddy’s ego leaves him unable to penetrate Brick’s alcoholic retreat.

Again and again, love is offered and spurned.  Maggie adores and desires a husband who tells her that he can’t stand her.  Big Daddy loves a son who’s weary of listening to his father “gas” about himself.  We are shocked at Maggie’s abasement when Brick rejects her; even more appalling are the scenes of deliberate cruelty in which Big Daddy insults his “fat” wife (who loves him) and humiliates her in front of the family and friends gathered for his birthday party.

Brick, Big Daddy, and Big Mama

As Big Daddy’s feckless, foolish wife, Corrine Koslo manages, against strong odds, to to arouse our sympathy for a thoroughly unlikeable character.  As Brick, Gray Powell gives the best performance we’ve seen from him at the Shaw Festival; it must be a challenge to play a character whose range of emotional response is constrained by his chronically high alcohol level.  We particularly appreciated Patrick McManus in the difficult role of Brick’s older brother Gooper, scheming with his fecund wife Mae (Nicole Underhay, also pitch-perfect) to get what he sees as justice from a father who has always preferred his younger brother.

We know we’re in danger of deep waters here, but we couldn’t help thinking how the playwright’s sexuality kept bursting forth at various points throughout the play — and we don’t mean simply the storyline about the attraction between Brick and Skipper.  Was Tennessee Williams repulsed by women’s bodies?  In the first act, Brick tells Maggie he is “disgusted” only seconds after she refers to her breasts and her figure.  Did the playwright feel threatened by sexually aggressive women?  Brick stubbornly resists Maggie’s sexual advances, and Big Daddy has stopped having sex with Big Mama (who likewise “disgusts” him).  And the playwright is clearly revolted by the sexual appetite and fecundity of Gooper’s wife Mae.

The Shaw Festival’s production might disappoint those who expect the lines to be rendered in the accents of the deep South.  But we probably wouldn’t understand a word if they did.  In this production, fortunately, the actors are all intelligible; they slip in and out of their accents just enough to remind us where the play is set.  And they nailed the main thing: the poetry.

An Ideal Husband at the Shaw Festival

Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) with the woman whose wiles he frustrates (Mrs. Cheveley, played by Moya O'Connell) and the woman he loves (Mabel Chiltern, played by Marla McLean)

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband seems to us to have a bipolar quality.  Its main plot is heavy stuff: everyone thinks the world of Sir Robert Chiltern, but a dark secret haunts him. As a poor young man in the British foreign office, he made his fortune by selling a state secret to a speculator, and now he’s being blackmailed. His idealistic wife will despise him if he gives in, but he’ll lose his reputation and his career if he doesn’t.

But the play is also a comedy about what Lady Chiltern calls the “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics” that compose London society. Chief among them is Lord Goring, a dandy who devotes himself to clever conversation, opera, and the perfect boutonniere. He flirts throughout the play with Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, with whom he is on the precipice of becoming engaged, and spars with his father, Lord Caversham, who thinks he is a wastrel.

Patrick Galligan as Sir Robert Chiltern is blackmailed by Moya O'Connell as Mrs. Cheveley

So while parts of the play are farce (a taste of what would make Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, written a year or so later, such a delight), the rest is dramatic tragedy. In this excellent production the contrast is sometimes startling. The second act, for example, ends in full drama mode with a long, impassioned speech from Lord Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) about his predicament.  But the third act (right after intermission) picks up with a comic exchange between Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) and his manservant Phipps (Anthony Bekenn) that could also have been played by Algernon and his manservant Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest. Only in the final scene do the farce and the drama finally intersect, as the villainess, Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O’Connell), is stymied and the truth comes out about Lady Chiltern’s much-misunderstood note, “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you.”

Mortal enemies: Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell) and Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Catherine McGregor)

This is the best “An Ideal Husband” we’ve seen.  Jackie Maxwell gives equal attention to telling the story and to showing off Wilde’s glittering repartee. The dramatic main plot is so grave that a director could be tempted to downplay the comedy. Not so here; every outrageous epigram is milked for full effect.

Lord Arthur Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) in all his decadence

There isn’t a weak performance in this show; it’s an awfully good cast. We thoroughly enjoyed Steven Sutcliffe, as Lord Arthur Goring, and his backhanded courtship of Marla McLean, as Mabel Chiltern. Mr. Sutcliffe’s performance helped us understand something we hadn’t quite seen before: by the time he wrote An Ideal Husband in 1893, Oscar Wilde badly wanted his public to understand that there was more to him than the “dandy” image he had cultivated over the years, and that despite his reputation for frivolity and pleasure-seeking he was a man of principle.

That is, Wilde wanted people to see — through Lord Goring, who stands in for the playwright — that he’d grown up. Wilde still gives Lord Goring many of the best comic lines of the play, like this exchange with his father (Lorne Kennedy):

Lord Caversham: I don’t know how you stand society. A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.
Lord Arthur Goring: I love talking about nothing, Father. It’s the only thing I know anything about.

But he also gives Lord Goring a speech that would grace any soap opera, one so melodramatic as to be laughable — except that for once Wilde does not want us to laugh:

You came here tonight to talk of love, you whose lips desecrated the word love, you to whom the thing is a book closely sealed, went this afternoon to the house of one of the most noble and gentle women in the world to degrade her husband in her eyes, to try and kill her love for him, to put poison in her heart, and bitterness in her life, to break her idol, and, it may be, spoil her soul. That I cannot forgive you.

And in the end he makes Lord Goring the moral center of the play, the character who tells his friend Lord Chiltern that his philosophy of power is “a thoroughly shallow creed.” When Lord Chiltern describes Baron Arnheim as a man of “culture, charm, and distinction,” Lord Goring calls the Baron a “damned scoundrel.” In this show, Mr. Sutcliffe delivers one-liners and pronounces moral judgments with equal pungency.

Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell) fails to convince Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) that he's the only man she's ever loved

We weren’t enthusiastic about the non-period, jungle-gym-style set in this show, which certainly didn’t give much of a sense of the opulent London townhouses in which the play is set. But we did get a charge out of some of the extravagant costumes, like the outlandish dressing gown Lord Goring wears during the late-night visits to his apartment by Lord Caversham and Mrs. Chevely and the attention-grabbing dresses of Mrs. Cheveley and young Mabel Chiltern.

We arrived at the Festival Theater in time to catch a fine pre-show talk about the life and times of Oscar Wilde by the Shaw Festival’s Autumn Smith, who was assistant director for this play.

Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women at the Shaw Festival

(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. 

Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, Helen Taylor as a saleswoman, Heather McGuigan as a department store model, Jenny Young as Mary Haines, and Lisa Codrington as a fitter

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. 

Moya O’Connell as Crystal Allen

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.) 

Jenny Young as Mary Haines

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.

Kelli Fox as Nancy Blake and Jenny Young as Mary Haines

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. 

Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, visits Moya O’Connell, as Crystal Allen, in her bath

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.

Hollywood butchers The Women

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Clare Boothe (before she became Clare Boothe Luce)

(January 2009) We should have known better, but when we saw that last year’s Hollywood remake of Clare Boothe’s classic 1936 play The Women was available on video, we couldn’t resist.

We bit on this turkey because we are great fans of the late playwright, socialite, politician, and diplomat, and because, for our money, The Women is one of the great American plays.  Boothe’s satire is dead on, and every line tells.

(As part of its 2010 season, the Shaw Festival, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is mounting The Women for the first time since 1985, when Nora McLellan was cast as Mary Haines.  The 2010 show features Jenny Young as Mary, Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, Kelli Fox as Nancy Blake, and Moya O’Connell as Crystal Allen.  See Emsworth’s thoughts on this show at this post.)

Unfortunately, the makers of the 2008 movie stripped everything from Boothe’s comedy but the bare outline of its plot. They failed to notice that the genius of the play lay, not in its plot, but in its glittering dialogue and its merciless portrayal of a circle of idle, insecure, amoral women.

Here’s one example of how Hollywood didn’t get it. In Clare Boothe’s play, socialite Mary Haines discovers that her husband is doing her dirty with a bimbo who sells perfume at Saks. She wants to save her marriage, so she decides to wait the affair out instead of confronting him.

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Meg Ryan (Mary) and Annette Bening (Sylvie) as buddies in this Sex and the City knock-off

But then Mary’s “friend” Edith leaks the details of the affair to a gossip columnist, who splashes headlines about the Haineses across the front of the society section of the newspaper. The publicity forces the issue and leaves Mary no choice but divorce, as Edith knew it would. Edith’s betrayal is all the more shocking because of the casual glee with which she boasts of it to the other women (“Oh, Sylvia, I’ve done the most awful thing . . . .”).

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Best friends forever! Meg Ryan and buddies

That’s Boothe’s play. No such subtlety or understatement for Hollywood! In the movie, it’s Sylvie, not Eydie, who betrays Mary (Meg Ryan) to the gossip columnist. (In the movie, “Edith” has become “Eydie” and “Sylvia” has become “Sylvie.”) And in the movie, Sylvie doesn’t spill the beans out of boredom and malice, as Edith does in Boothe’s play, but because she’s cut a deal with the columnist in a desperate attempt to salvage her faltering career as editor of a fashion magazine, and only after losing a battle with her conscience. We’re not shocked by Sylvie’s selling out her friend; we’re simply bored.

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Emsworth strongly recommends the 1939 movie version of The Women, directed by George Cukor and starring Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell

Producer Victoria Pearman bragged to a Boston newspaper that the movie-makers kept the remake true to the original play by having an all-female cast (the women talk about men all the time, but no men are never seen, not even among the extras). But Boothe’s women-only cast was hardly the essence of the play; it was just a gimmick. And screenwriter Diane English apparently thought she could improve on Boothe’s play by making The Women a female buddy movie and injecting “diversity”; she filled out Mary’s circle of friends with a new character who is a black lesbian (Jada Pinkett). How badly they missed the wheat for the chaff!

We regret missing the Broadway revival of The Women several years ago. It starred Cynthia Nixon as Mary Haines; maybe that was what gave writer and director Diane English the stupendously foolish idea to remake The Women as Sex and the City lite.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Shaw Festival

We’ve been going to the Shaw Festival long enough now to see most all the full-length Bernard Shaw plays that are actually performed anymore (which is still most of them). We’ve also seen some of them more than once: Major Barbara (1998 and 2004), The Philanderer (1995 and 2007), Arms and the Man (1994 and 2006), and now, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1997 and 2008).

What surprised us was that in each case we saw a livelier, better-focused, more entertaining production the second time around.  From which we conclude that, for the last half dozen years, the Shaw Festival has been doing Shaw better then ever.

This year’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a case in point.  The 1997 production had left us with the impression that this was a relatively humorless Shaw play with a strained plot and an uninteresting heroine who shouldn’t have had so much trouble deciding how she felt about her mother.  After seeing the 2008 version, we know better.

Andrew Bunker and Moya O'Connell as Vivie and Frank in "Mrs. Warren's Profession"

As this play opens, the 22-year-old Vivie Warren (Moya O’Connell) has just graduated from Cambridge with an advanced degree in mathematics (a rare accomplishment for a woman in the 1890s). What next? She has an opportunity with an actuarial office in London; at the same time, during a vacation at her mother’s country cottage, she has been dallying with a young man from the neighborhood, Frank Gardner (Andrew Bunker).

Unaware that her daughter has ideas of her own, Vivie’s mother Kitty Warren (Mary Haney), wants to set her up in society.   But after years of boarding schools and university, Vivie hardly knows her mother and has questions.  Who is her father?  (Why was Shaw attracted to this theme?  He used it in You Never Can Tell as well.)  How has her mother made her money? And why does she spend all her time away in Brussels and Vienna?

Mary Haney and Benedict Campbell as Mrs. Warren and Crofts

Vivie is shocked to learn from her mother and her mother’s friends that the money that has put her through England’s finest schools has come from a string of European brothels managed by her mother — and that her mother was herself once a courtesan.  She is also dismayed to find that her mother is encouraging her to entertain the matrimonial advances of a wealthy but dissolute baronet (played by Benedict Campbell) twice her age — who was once one of her mother’s customers.

This show, as directed by Jackie Maxwell, never rushes and never drags.  The fine sets, which reminded us of tinted etchings, drew us back to the late 19th century.  In general, Ms. Maxwell followed the set, costuming, and stage directions that Shaw set down when he wrote the play.  We were grateful for this; too often directors who would not substitute their own dialogue for a playwright’s have no qualms about ignoring the director’s other specifications for his play.

On the left: Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren. On the right: one of Toulouse-Lautrec's madames.

The acting is marvelous, especially that of Shaw Festival veteran Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren herself, who plays a character struggling to straddle two worlds.  Early in the play, aspiring to marry her daughter to a baronet and aspiring to a place in English society, she is costumed and behaves like an English gentlewoman.  By the last scene, about to return to her life as a brothel madam, both her costume (very much like one of the garish madams in a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec) and her coarse manner is that of the brothels to which she is about to return.  The audience is persuaded that Mrs. Warren was born into the lowest ranks of London society because (thanks to the skill of Ms. Haney) her working-class accent “betrays” her at moments of high emotion (an effect prescribed by Shaw himself).

Toulouse-Lautrec's painting "At the Moulin Rouge" is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago

As Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s silent partner in the prostitution business, Benedict Campbell is appropriately revolting; our audience sighed audibly with relief when Vivie rejected his proposal.  Despite his distinguished appearance and manner, Campbell passes easily for the “brutal waster” that Vivie Warren saw him for. 

Andrew Bunker, as Vivie’s romantic interest (and possibly her half-brother), shows himself an excellent Shavian actor.  Only Moya O’Connell, as Mrs. Warren’s daughter, was not fully satisfactory.  We did not hear her as well as the other actors, and every now and then she seemed to mistake the meaning of her lines by emphasizing the wrong words.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is one of two plays at the Shaw Festival this year with a connection to one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, Evelyn Waugh.  As I noted in an earlier post, Terrence Rattigan’s After the Dance provides a “ten years later” look at the frivolous young socialites the 1920s, the subjects of several of Waugh’s brilliant novels.  In the finest of those novels, Decline and Fall, one of the characters learns belatedly that his rich fiance, Margot Beste-Chetwynde, is actually the proprietor of a chain of brothels in South America.  Waugh must have had Kitty Warren in the back of his mind when he invented his character in Decline and Fall.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of The Stepmother at the Shaw Festival.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of the Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married at the Shaw Festival.