Gossipy, back-biting 'Women' is a hoot

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By Doug Deuchler

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If you're not familiar with The Women, Clare Booth Luce's 1936 campy comedy of manners currently in revival at Circle Theatre, you might expect a show with an all-female cast to make at least a few feminist statements. Not!

Though it's a riotous romp, the play is a non-stop marathon of women putting women in their place. If you can't imagine watching a bunch of pampered Manhattan socialites engaging in mud-slinging, back-biting, and bickering over men for 2½ hours, you may not get into this raucous female free-for-all. Yet it's a wonderful smorgasbourd of juicy put-downs and quick comebacks. The performances are priceless.

Circle Theatre's fast-paced production features a large, lively cast of actresses who seem to have great fun portraying an assortment of over-the-top women. Director Jim Schneider keeps each one of them in sharp focus.

This busy play, which ran 657 performances 75 years ago, is still strong enough to hold its own. The dialogue is crisp and peppered with witty one-liners. Though the values and attitudes are now often accused of being dated and misogynistic, it's still an enjoyable comedy that makes for delightful diversion. I don't think women this zany old warhorse will cause anyone to backslide.

Yes, the politically incorrect bottom line message seems to be that women (all jealous and manipulative) need a man to make them complete. The play also seems to imply that a woman must abandon her principles, her pride, and even her friends in order to keep her man. Marriage among the pampered and privileged seems a sort of high-class form of prostitution where wives are supported in grand manner by their cheating husbands.

Men are often talked about yet never seen. (In the famous MGM movie version, even the dogs and horses were females.) Almost all energy seems directed into competition for the ultimate status symbol: a successful man. The men we never meet are shallow cheaters, yet no one ever seems to blame them for anything. They just fight over them.

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Though set in the mid-1930s, this is no Depression drama. The characters, except for their "help," are all rich, bored, and well-heeled.

With impeccable comic timing the large cast of 18 portray 30-some female characters.

The story hinges on Mary Haines (Jhenai Mootz), initially unaware that her husband of 12 years is having an affair with a gold-digging salesgirl. Mootz brings real depth to the difficult role, making Mary sympathetic though she's no saintly goody-two-shoes. She's down-to-earth and likeable, but also vulnerable in this tank of sharks.

Every one of Mary's upscale girlfriends is going through her own marital woes.

Sara Pretz is outrageously funny playing Sylvia, the heroine's best friend and worst nightmare. She's a viper who does all she can to spread the gossip that precipitates Mary's divorce.

Mary's dignified mother, nicely played by Donna Steele, dispatches the cynical advice that male infidelity is a fact of life but it always blows over.

Brigitte Ditmars is Crystal Allen, a selfish, scheming man-trap, a sales clerk at Saks, played by Joan Crawford in the film version.

Hayley L. Rice is comic standout as perpetually pregnant Edith, while Sarah Breidenback plays sweetly naive Peggy.

With wonderful madcap zaniness, Nancy Greco plays scatterbrained, five-times-married Countess De Lave, who marries a singing cowboy. The character was reportedly based on a Countess Di Frasso, then having a fling with Gary Cooper.

Sara Minton is quite hilarious as the wisecracking owner of a divorcees' dude ranch in Reno, the divorce capital of the country at that time. Minton lately seems to have a corner on Marjorie Main roles at Circle, playing this one from the MGM film of The Women, as well as the wisecracking cook in Meet Me in St. Louis.

Sassy, no-nonsense divorcee Miriam, who steals Sylvia's husband, is well played by Katharine Thurman.

There's a big, no-holds-barred second act cat fight between Miriam and Sylvia.

Kelli Walker is fun as Nancy, an acerbic, tart-tongued writer (believed to be based on Dorothy Parker).

Toni Lunice Fountain and Alicia Hurtado are great in a duet scene as kitchen staff who gossip about the lady of the house, bringing us up to speed on certain plot points.

Among some of the working-class characters — hairdressers, manicurists, etc. — there is a tendency toward cartoonish Carol Burnett caricature.

As any fan of vintage films knows, a woman shown smoking back in the day was instantly established as a liberated, modern gal. Here it's carried to comic extreme, with women enjoying a cigarette while doing calisthenics, while bathing, even while nursing a baby.

Clare Booth Luce, the playwright, supposedly wrote this catty comedy over a long weekend after she overheard some delicious gossip in a ladies' lounge. Luce also ran for office, started a magazine, worked as an editor, was elected to Congress, and appointed an ambassador.

Bob Knuth's revolving set, on a giant turn-table, works wonderfully. As if in a movie, scenes shift immediately from a spa to a department store dressing room, for instance.

The rotating sets are all nicely dressed with authentic Art Deco details and props by Jim Schneider — from tea sets to console radios. There's even one of those scary-looking electric permanent wave machines where women in beauty salons were hooked up to jolts of current in order to achieve a wavy hairdo.

There's a ton of stylish but often inaccurate costuming. A sense of period is never clearly established. Many of the garments look far more '50s than '30s.

Kari Kontour is stage manager. Zev Steinberg is the fight co-ordinator, assisted by Aaron Pagel. The assistant director is Brenda Kilanski.

Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher/school librarian who, when he isn't reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.

Reader Comments

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another OP resident from Oak Park  

Posted: July 14th, 2011 12:59 PM

Too close to the reality of living around here. Sorry, I won't pay for some more of it.

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