Monday, February 19, 2018

From the Archives - Not for Women Only: Luce's 'The Women' a Triumph of Style, Substance

This article appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on February 19, 1999:

Not for Women Only: Luce's The Women a Triumph of Style, Substance
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Dr. Laura would approve. The popular radio moralist (heard locally on WMAL-AM) nags her callers and listeners frequently about the evil nature of gossip. To gossip, she says, is morally wrong, both intrinsically and because it inevitably hurts someone, if not the object of the gossip, then the one who spreads it.

Clare Boothe Luce The WomenAnd The Women, Clare Boothe Luce's classic 1930s play now at the Arena Stage, is nothing if not a moral tale of the evil consequences of gossip, especially that practiced by catty (and witty) women of leisure in the upper crusts of society. To get to the moral of her story, however, Luce delivers a funny, bitchy, cynical script that, under Kyle Donnelly's direction, is as relevant today as it was when first produced on Broadway back in 1936.

What's more, Luce (wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce, and later Ambassador to Italy and U.S. Representative from Connecticut) does not limit herself to the society matrons (and mistresses) that so titillated Depression-era New York audiences. Like Shakespeare, she sometimes turns to the lower classes -- in this case, the servants -- to comment on the action in a clownish but insightful manner. This offers a perspective that allows us to see the protagonists not just as victims (or vixens) but also as fools who fail to recognize their own imperfections.

Arena's production of The Women has its share of great performances -- Nancy Robinette is positively manic as the Countess de Lage, Stacey Leigh Ivey is seductive as Crystal Allan, Sarah Marshall is Gertrude Steinish as the professional writer, Miss Blake, and Ellen Karas is steadfast as Mrs. Stephen Haines, the evening's primary divorcée.

Still, the real stars of The Women are the sets and costumes. Thomas Lynch's set design is sleek, convertible, and practicable. At the same time, Paul Tazewell's costumes are breathtaking. Moreover, the two designers have worked for convergence -- no costume seems out of place vis-à-vis the set decoration, and no aspect of the set overshadows the costumes. And, like the play itself, which builds through several scenes to a climax and denouement at a rooftop party, the final scene's evening gowns are absolutely fabulous. (Karas' red gown is worth the price of admission by itself.)

On leaving the theatre on opening night, my companion and I discussed the possibility of a musical adaptation of The Women. Only later did I find out that such a thing exists -- a 1956 musical film called The Opposite Sex, starring June Allyson, Joan Collins, Agnes Morehead, Ann Sheridan, Charlotte Greenwood, and Ann Miller, and including men in the cast. The movie obviously did not have much of an impact -- the composer, Nicholas Brodszky, apparently wrote nothing else of consequence -- but might make a fun video to rent. Nonetheless, if your only choice is to rent The Opposite Sex or the original film with Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Marjorie Main, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, and Hedda Hopper, go with the 1939 non-musical. Or, even better, wander over to the Arena Stage and see it live.

The Women continues through February 21 at the Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, S.W., in Washington. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m., with selected Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m. and selected Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $24 to $45. For ticket information, call the box office at 202-488-3300.

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