Few plays offer as many strong female roles as Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 comedy of bad manners, The Women. Cynthia Nixon, Kristen Johnston and Rue McClanahan headed the all-distaff cast of two dozen conniving carnivores in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival that played a limited engagement on Broadway this past season.
Thanks to PBS' Stage on Screen series, that cast's exuberant, no-holds-barred, catty performances were taped for television and will air Tuesday (9 p.m.-11:30 p.m., MPT, Channels 22 and 67). The performances are one of the best reasons to watch the broadcast; Isaac Mizrahi's amusingly chic costumes are another.
Although Luce was a hard-working, liberated woman herself, in The Women she focused on, and satirized, the self-absorbed idle rich. Dining on a steady diet of nasty gossip, these members of the "fairer sex" are a largely despicable crew. They may dress like ladies, but their claws are always bared; it's no wonder they favor a shade of nail polish called "Jungle Red."
Three years ago, when The Women - replete with off-stage philandering husbands - was revived at Washington's Arena Stage, it coincided with President Clinton's impeachment trial. Suddenly, this apparent period piece took on unexpected topicality. Now the play is back to being a period piece (or so one can fervently hope).
Yet who can resist a good cat fight? Director Scott Elliott makes the most of the script's skirmishes; when these "ladies" go it at, kicking and biting are the favored forms of combat. But their tongues are their sharpest weapons, and the most cutting of all belongs to Johnston's Sylvia, who takes malevolent delight in her own caustic wit. In one scene, Mizrahi gives her a fox fur hat, complete with a long tail, and we realize she's both sly as a fox and the fox in the henhouse.
Predatory Sylvia contrasts with Nixon's Mary, a woman about whom no one has a bad word to say (and in this crowd that's something). Nowadays, Nixon may portray one of the vixens on Sex and the City, but in The Women, she's downright demure, and as pretty as a Madame Alexander doll. In the end, Mary, too, learns to fight back. But she doesn't enter the fray for the thrill of it; she's fighting to save her family, and for her final scene, Mizrahi dresses her in a victorious, gleaming gold gown.
Most of the cast shines - from little Hallie Kate Eisenberg, as Mary's independent-minded young daughter (who clearly will grow up to be a liberated woman), to McClanahan's oft-divorced countess, a woman of the world who has learned nothing from experience. The servants, clerks, etc., who wait on these spoiled socialites are also well-observed.
A few major portrayals, however, are basically cartoons. As the floozy who steals Mary's husband, Jennifer Tilly is such a broad caricature, her character is no competition for sweet, decent Mary.
And as the perpetually pregnant member of the group, Jennifer Coolidge seems excessively dim, though in this case, that impression enhances the hilariously un-PC scene in which she absentmindedly drops cigarette ashes on the head of her nursing newborn.
The sets - by Derek McLane, who is also the set designer for the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration - offer a running commentary on the action; Mary's bedroom looks like an enormous, opened compact, and the dressing rooms of a fancy women's specialty shop are topped by a giant hanger.
Directed for television before a live audience by Jay Sandrich, the taped stage play makes no attempt to re-stage scenes for the camera, but it's a delicious luxury to see close-ups of these vicious creatures. One real disappointment is the bland interview Jason Alexander conducts with the stars during intermission.
The most welcome moment is a brief clip from the classic 1939 George Cukor movie, which starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. The actresses point out that the movie softened the play's edges - the women on stage are more "raunchy" and "potty mouthed," as Tilly puts it.
In this revival, they're also more scantily clad - at least in the curtain call. Mizrahi sends them out in their skivvies. Lovely, lace skivvies they are, too - and probably a lot easier to fight in.
Local director Barry Feinstein was in New York Wednesday night receiving a Spirit of Anne Frank Award from the Anne Frank Center USA.
A resident speech pathologist at the William S. Baer School for more than two decades, Feinstein also teaches acting classes and conducts workshops for the challenged at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.
He was one of 10 winners of the 2002 Anne Frank Award, which honors "individuals who display Anne's spirit and courage to confront racism, prejudice and bias-related violence through participation in community-based organizations or programs."