The Women by Clare Boothe Luce. Directed by Scott Elliott. Set designed by Derek McLane. Costumes designed by Isaac Mizrahi. Lighting designed by Brian MacDevitt. Musical arrangements and sound design by Douglas J. Cuomo. Cast: Kristen Johnson, Rue McClanahan, Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Tilly, Mary Louise Wilson, Lynn Collins, Jennifer Coolidge, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lisa Emery, Amy Ryan. With Susan Bruce, Jennifer Butt, Jane Cronin, Jen Davis, Mary Bond Davis, Julie Halston, Roxanna Hope, Kelly Mares, Barbara Marineau, Heather Matarazzo,
Adina Porter, Gayton Scott, Cheryl Stern, Ann Talman.
Though it deals with questions of motherhood, marital infidelity, and other weighty issues, the primary goal of Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 play The Women is to allow women to be women onstage. After all, it has over forty characters, all of them female. Therefore, it's not surprising to see the cast of Roundabout's new revival of the show, which opened last night at the American Airlines Theatre, having what looks like a great time portraying the show's drama, comedy, and practically everything in between.
Unfortunately, that great time doesn't necessarily extend to the audience. True, society has changed quite a bit in the 65 years since its Broadway premiere, but the text of Luce's play can potentially be as funny and relevant now as it was then. The attitude, feelings, and actions of the women in the play are much the same as they are today, though not every line may be in vogue. This new production, directed by Scott Elliott, just doesn't embrace enough of what's there, so it leaves you feeling something is missing.
The story of The Women deals primarily with Mary (or, as she is referred to constantly, Mrs. Stephen Haines), played by Cynthia Nixon. Her previously happy existence is shattered by the realization - obtained, unintentionally, through the gossip mill - that her husband is having an affair with Crystal, a counter girl at Saks (Jennifer Tilly). How Mary resolves this problem, both internally and externally, comprises the bulk of the play.
Of far more interest to Elliott (and, perhaps, Luce) is the interaction of the characters. The gossipy Sylvia (Kristen Johnson), the perenially pregnant Edith (Jennifer Coolidge), and the often-married Countess De Lage (Rue McClanahan), among others, weave a fascinating tapestry of betrayal, deception, and, in some strange way, affection. Mary's interactions with her mother (Mary Louise Wilson) and daughter (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) are different, but every bit as important in showing where Mary got her attitude, and what she will pass along to her daughter.
Yet it is these interactions that present the greatest problems in this production of the play. Though Elliott has mostly staged the show well (with significant help from Derek McLane's chic set designs), the cats themselves have just not come out to play. The dialogue suggests a certain level of attitude from most of the women that simply does not come across in performance. Too often, Isaac Mizrahi's outlandish and sumptuous costumes upstage the actresses, seeming inappropriate for the women being presented. In addition, certain moments play too flatly; Mary's learning of her husband's affair from a too-knowledgeable manicurist or her discovery of how maybe to win him back for good deserve a richer and fuller treatment than they receive here.
Nixon, however, is usually able to set aside the other problems facing the production and turn in what is frequently a compelling performance. McClanahan gets great comic mileage out of her character, though she doesn't appear until the second act, and Mary Louise Wilson makes Mary's mother spunky and appealing. Tilly is stronger as the golddigging Crystal in the first act, when she's slightly more a periphery evil than a major focus of the action.
Most of the other actresses have more difficulty. Ms. Johnson, in particular, doesn't seem up to the demands of Sylvia. She postures and affects a high-society voice, but never really seems to be as low and bitch as Sylvia is frequently required to be. Surprisingly, she seems to come into her own during the big second act "cat fight," but never achieves as much character elsewhere in the show. Eisenberg only has a few scenes, but comes across more annoying than spirited. Coolidge is rather uneven, but funniest in the first scene in the second act, right after delivering one in a string of babies.
Problems aside, Elliott and his cast do enough to prove that The Women remains a strong show capable of holding its own today. This production just lacks the additional bit of inspiration that would make this version of The Women less a revival and more a revelation. As it stands, there's no need to sharpen your claws before attending this production. The cats may howl, but they never scratch.