Godfather Vito Corleone’s advice to “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” could easily have been inspired by a night at the theater—had the play in question been Clare Boothe Luce’s comedy classic The Women, now getting a mostly top-notch revival at L.A.’s venerable Theatre West.

11111111 Ahead of its time back in the mid-‘30s for its frankness about male-female relationships, friendships between women, marriage, motherhood, and divorce, Luce’s comedy of manners managed to do all this back in 1936 with not a male actor in sight amongst its all-female cast of thirty-three, a feat duplicated in George Cukor’s 1939 film adaptation (though with a grand total of 130 actresses in that many speaking roles).

Theatre West cuts its ensemble down to eighteen, still large for an Equity production, and one that features some truly delicious acting, particularly in the play’s larger roles.

Maria Kress is heroine Mary Haines, whose never-seen husband Stephen has been having an affair with perfume-counter salesgirl Crystal Allen (Caitlin Gallogly), a tidbit we learn from scandal-loving Sylvia Fowler (Leona Britton) during an Act One, Scene One bridge foursome with the ever-pregnant Edith Potter (Anne Leyden), the never-married Nancy Blake (Dianne Travis), and the still-naïve Peggy Day (Ayn Olivia Vaughan).

111111 Always the schemer, Sylvia persuades Mary to get her nails done “Jungle Red” by manicurist Olga (Heather Alyse Becker) in hopes that the gossipy nail-polisher will spill the beans to Mrs. Stephen Haines herself—which she does.

2222222 Apprised of her husband’s infidelity, Mary seeks counsel from her mother (Sandra Tucker), who advises her daughter to look the other way, words of wisdom Mary initially heeds, until a chance meeting with Crystal brings everything out into the open and Mary’s quickie Reno divorce leaves the illicit lovers free to marry.

And that’s just the start of the female fireworks that have kept The Women a regional and community theater favorite for the past three-quarters of a century.

1111111 The Women’s other characters include the Countess de Lage (Jacque Lynn Colton), a much-married matron whose latest husband-for-sale is would-be Hollywood heartthrob Buck Winston; stage star Miriam Aarons (Rebecca Lane), who’s been carrying on with Sylvia’s hubby Howard behind Sylvia’s back; Little Mary (Emily Mount), Mary’s naïve but knowing young daughter; and Lucy (Mary Garripoli), the frank-talking caretaker of the Reno resort where Mary and friends are either celebrating or bemoaning their divorces.

All these women may have lived nearly eight decades ago, however as Bravo’s various Real Housewives series make abundantly clear (and as the Countess de Lage might put it), “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The Women created by Luce back in the mid-1930s may be classier and more sophisticated than their contemporary reality-TV counterparts, but Sylvia, Crystal, and the rest could give lessons to any of today’s Real Housewives in marriage, divorce, gossip, the pursuit of beauty at any cost, and all-around cattiness.

1111 Director Arden Teresa Lewis has clearly done her 1930s homework, as have most of her cast, the majority of performances capturing the distinctive ‘30s flair so absolutely essential to reviving any stage classic of the era.

11111 Most delectable of the bunch are Gallogly’s Mae Westy Crystal and Britton’s bitch-perfect Sylvia. Colton is a hoot and a half as the dithery Countess De Lage, Travis is mannish perfection as confirmed bachelorette Nancy, and Leyden is a bejeweled delight as chain-smoking Edith (and never more so than when whisking away an ash from the layette of her just-born fifth babe). Tucker brings elegance, style, and wisdom to the role of Mary’s mother Mrs. Morehead, Lane channels Eve Arden wise-crackingly well as musical comedy star Miriam, Garripoli is a Nevada ball of fire as Lucy, and Becker gives manicurist Olga some snappy Brooklyn sass. Though older than Little Mary ought perhaps to be cast, Mount does her best in a role rather more stiltedly written than a child’s part would be today. As for the patrician Kress’s Mary, while I enjoyed her performance considerably, the role would be played more era-accurately with the Mid-Atlantic vowels that were de rigueur for an upper class role in Broadway’s Golden Age (and which Britton in particular replicates pitch-perfectly).

2222 The remaining cast members (Jeanine Anderson, Melanie Kwiatkowski, Paula K. Long, Barbara Mallory, Sarah Purdum, Deborah Webb Thomas, and Vaughn), though uneven, have their effective moments in an assortment of featured and cameo roles. Anderson and Thomas in particular have an entertaining tête-à-tête as the Haines’s maid and cook, one which allows playwright Luce to give audiences a blow-by-blow description of a key Stephen-Mary confrontation without having to resort to a male actor intruding amongst her all-female cast.

On a minor, less positive note, a well-meaning but misguided bit of colorblind casting seems out of place in the play’s otherwise realistic 1930s setting. Across-the-board non-traditional casting could make for a sensational The Women revival. A single instance of it proves disconcerting if not outright revisionist history.

Notwithstanding, director Lewis, her cast, and the Theatre West design team do a generally terrific job of bringing the ‘30s to vivid, vibrant life. Valerie Miller’s costumes are both period-perfect and glamorous as all get-out, with special snaps for Edith’s diamonds, which she wears even in her post-partum hospital bed. (If only the women had some of those fabulous 1930s hats to wear atop their mostly spot-on hairdos and wigs.) David Offner’s effective scenic design lets various furniture arrangements take us from location to location in front of a single, elegantly appointed backdrop. Yancey Dunham’s lighting design and David P. Johnson’s sound design are both effective as well.

The Women is produced by Jill Jones. Lee Meriwether is assistant director, Roger Kent Cruz is stage manager, and David Baer is assistant stage manager.

The women created by Clare Boothe Luce may have been born a century or more ago, but her comedy classic remains as sharply-clawed and freshly-mascaraed as if it had been written just last week. Those requiring proof positive of the above need only check out the entertaining revival confectioned by The Women Of Theatre West.

Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 10, 2013
Photos: Thomas Mikusz

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