Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Clare Boothe Luce The Women is a Gas

Also see Richard's review of Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous

Center REPertory Company of Walnut Creek is currently presenting Clare Boothe Luce's 1936's The Women at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts. Director Lee Sankowich has assembled nineteen actresses all dressed up in outlandish fashions of the late '30s to present this catty play.

Playwright Luce's play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 26 1936. Brooks Atkinson of the Times called the all female cast "a kettle of venom." The play boasted some of the luminaries of the New York stage including Ilka Chase, Margalo Gilmore and Phyliss Povah. A young Arlene Francis played various roles including the Russian princess model Tamara. Marjorie Main, who later became Ma Kettle in films, and Audrey Christie played roles in the caustic drama which was originally going to called The Girls. It ran 657 performances.

MGM made a superb film of the stage production in 1939 under the direction of George Cukor, with Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer tearing each other apart through bitchy dialogue. I first saw a stage production in 1973 at the 46th Street Theatre with Rhoda Fleming and Myrna Loy making their Broadway debut. Also in the cast were Kim Hunter, Alexis Smith and Jan Miner. A more recent revival presented at the American Airlines Theatre on October 12, 2001 received mixed reviews. It was telecasted on PBS 2002.

The Women reminds me of the Stepehen Sondheim song "The Ladies Who Lunch," with the line "Here's to the ladies who lunch, aren't they a gas". Well, this cast is a gas with its merciless portrayal of upper crust bitchiness. The social climbing New York women have so much time on their hands, they can only claw and jab at each other. There is betrayal, deception, lies and innuendos abounding in this two act play.

Central character Mary (Holli Hornlein) is blissfully ignorant of her husband's mistress, shop girl Crystal (Lauren Elizabeth White), until she is made aware by the plotting of her so called friends. As the saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies? The leader of this "wolf" pack is Sylvia (Deb Fink), supposedly Mary's best friend who thinks only of her self and her "Jungle Red" nail polish. She is assisted in treachery by her robust friend Edith (Gwen Loeb) who seems to be always pregnant in all of the scenes (in fact actress Loeb is really pregnant.)

Mary heads to Reno for a divorce and her husband marries the blond bimbo Crystal and every one is unhappy including her friends who all are getting divorces. However Mary learns of some of Crystal extra sexual affairs after the marriage and she manipulates to get her husband back.

The large assembled cast has some notable acting on the part of Holli Hornlien who goes from a naïve wife to being downright nasty at the end of the play. Deb Fink does a fine job as the spiteful plot stirrer Sylvia. However she seems to do a lot of hissing when things are not going her way. Gwen Loeb as Edith is very good at stuffing her mouth with food, apparently to feed her not yet born babies. Lauren Elizabeth White plays Crystal like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Jennifer Tilly who played the role in the recent revival. Pat Parker, who has the showy role of Countess de Lage, has a voice like Elaine Stritch and is exceptional in the role. She does a wonderful comic portrayal of the much married woman, especially in the second act. Chloe Bronzan gives a commendable performance as the Irish maid to Mary, especially when she is giving out the "dirt" on the upcoming divorce of her employer.

Clare Boothe Luce said it best about these women in an interview she did years ago. "The women who inspired this play deserved to be smacked across the head with a meat ax and that, I flatter myself, is exactly what I smacked them with."

Kelly Tighe's set design is very effectual with pieces of white gauzy drapes that are rearranged for each scene. There is a minimum amount of furniture, since scenes take place in restaurants, Mary's home and a hotel lobby in Reno. Costumes by Laura Hazlett are high camp '30s outfits, especially those worn by Deb Fink. Director Lee Sankowich has used the excellently authentic dialogue of the '30s which might seem strange to those younger members of the audience.

The Women runs through November 19 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or visit

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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