What a fine time for `The Women'

Review: Clare Boothe Luce's play about catty gossips and the cheating husbands they love to talk about fits right into the Washington scene.

January 26, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In any other city, a revival of Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 play, "The Women," would probably seem like a period piece. But in Washington in the midst of President Clinton's impeachment trial, this drama about catty, gossiping women and their cheating husbands suddenly seems like social commentary.

Not that director Kyle Donnelly has updated Arena Stage's production. Far from it. Paul Tazewell's marvelous Thirties costumes -- replete with a glorious array of hats -- and Thomas Lynch's Art Deco set hew strictly to the style of pre-World War II high society.

And yet, watching this hilariously playful production, you can't help thinking that if the play took place 60 years later, at least half the women on stage would probably be wearing a wire.

Although Luce was a career woman -- playwright, war correspondent, congresswoman and ambassador -- all but one of the major characters in "The Women" are idle socialites who spend their days playing bridge, shopping and visiting the beauty parlor. And, oh yes, gossiping -- mostly about each other.

The chief subject of gossip is the least catty among the women, Mary, a contented housewife and mother, played by Ellen Karas as the soul of kindness and decency. "An exception to us all," is the way Mary is described by Sylvia, the play's most inveterate and dangerous loose-tongued meddler. Having discovered that Mary's husband is cheating, Martha Hackett's nasty Sylvia won't rest until she finagles a way for Mary to find out.

The play, which has an exclusively female cast, is loaded with colorful characters, played with great flair at Arena. There's the much-married Countess de Lage, portrayed by Nancy Robinette as a somewhat gentler Mae West; Brigid Cleary's self-indulgent and perpetually pregnant Edith; Sarah Marshall's sharp-tongued, trouser-wearing Nancy, an author who is the group's sole career woman; and Stacey Leigh Ivey's predatory ex-salesgirl, Crystal, the hard-as-nails, husband-stealing "other woman" in Mary's life.

There are also some delightful depictions of the women who wait on the privileged main characters. As Mary's maid, Elizabeth Pierotti regales a fellow servant with a tour-de-force re-enactment of a quarrel between their employers. And Rosalie Tenseth is a hoot as the thoroughly unladylike proprietress of the Reno resort where the Park Avenue matrons gather while waiting for their divorces to be finalized.

Luce was satirizing a lifestyle when she wrote "The Women," and certainly there is very little to respect about the play's back-stabbing schemers. In fact, in the end, sweet-natured Mary has become as much of a cat as the rest of them.

But Mary stoops to their level not merely to win her husband back, but to preserve something larger than her marriage -- her home and family. And, at least as Karas plays her, there is some nobility in Mary's goal, nobility not unlike that which a first lady, for example, might display to help preserve an institution also larger than marriage.

Luce, who, among other things, was a staunch Republican, probably didn't expect audiences to find anything admirable in the behavior of her "Women." Yet six decades later in our nation's capital, her play has taken on several new layers of interpretation.

Indeed, it is to director Donnelly's credit that without including a single reference to today's headlines, her production nonetheless has a surprising topicality. And that, my dears, is more than half the fun of this revival.

`The Women'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees at 2: 30 Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Feb. 21

Tickets: $24-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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