Let's get one thing straight right away: Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women" is a hateful play. Its depiction of women clawing at each other, gloating at one another's marital failures, even conspiring against each other would have been considered sick and misogynist had it been written by a man. The fact that its heroine grows from a woman of reticence and delicacy into someone even bitchier than her friends - in order to recapture her clearly stupid husband - only compounds the ugliness of the conception. All of this intensifies my guilt when I declare that I had a wonderful time at the Roundabout's revival. It's coarse, it's overstated, but it's fun. Even when the play opened in 1936, people recognized it as a grotesque treatment of what was then called "the fair sex."
"Do you know any women like that?" a first-nighter allegedly asked Anita Loos (who would write additional dialogue for the 1939 film version). "One," she replied, implying the playwright. Part of the play's continuing fascination is the simple ingenuity of not having any men onstage. If there were, the artificiality of what happens might be far more apparent. The main reason "The Women" gets revived, of course, is that, however malicious Luce may have been, she was funny. Some of the humor is even self-deprecating. "Nobody ever misses a clever woman," one of the more interesting characters, a writer, laments. Asked what her latest book is about, she says, "The women I dislike - in other words, women."
Much of the play's interest today stems from its being politically incorrect to the max. One of the women, for example, speaks nonchalantly about how often her man beats her. She almost feels guilty about it: "When you think there are a lot of women in this hotel who need a beating worse than me!"
If there was any justification for all this cattiness, it was that Luce was not depicting all women, simply the ones who live along Park Ave. The initial success of the play may have hinged partly on the delight people in the Depression took in seeing the privileged depicted so cruelly. In Scott Elliott's production, the class element plays little part. The always sublime Mary Louise Wilson, as the heroine's mother, conveys noblesse beautifully. As her daughter, Cynthia Nixon has a genteel, vulnerable quality that is just right for her "education" into the higher realms of bitchiness. Most of the other felines on display, however, are not pampered Persians but rather plain alley cats. Which doesn't mean they aren't funny, just that the production has an overall shrillness that can be wearing. Rue McClanahan is wickedly funny as a rich woman who snags a young man and uses her money to make him a movie star. Kristen Johnston is exceedingly funny as the most vicious of the lot. Jennifer Coolidge handles the role of an always-pregnant society woman with hilarious swagger, especially one of the nastiest scene in the play, when she insists on smoking while nursing her newborn. Jennifer Tilly rarely gets beyond one note as the gold digger who ruins the heroine's marriage. Lisa Emery has a wonderfully worldly air as the writer. Julie Halston has some delicious cameos. Isaac Mizrahi has designed an amazing range of costumes: an exquisite party gown for Nixon, refined suits for Wilson, brazen outfits for McClanahan and tacky but revelatory underwear for the whole cast's curtain calls. His designs - lavish, sometimes classy, sometimes vulgar - underscore the sensibility of the whole production. Derek McLane's sets evoke '30s New York wittily. Whatever its weaknesses, Luce's play has a surprisingly steely strength. And it's still a lot of fun.
As the poet said: "Hell hath no fury like a women scorned," or as someone else remarked, "Life can be a cross between a bitch and a cat fight."
All of the above will be found in Clare Boothe Luce's cheerfully melodramatic comedy "The Women," which has been briskly and brightly revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company at its plush Broadway home, the American Airlines Theatre.
Written and first staged in 1936 - when the rich could still be idle - today it wears its period patina with a certain grace and authenticity.
It charts in unforgiving detail the lives, manners and morals of wealthy Park Lane matrons, whose lives are designated to their husbands, and their only personal identity comes through self-caricature and gossip.
While the lifestyle in the 65-year-old play is as remote to us now as the social life in Margaret Mead's Samoa, some of today's women would doubtless fit cozily and bitchily into Luce's world of grinning tooth and jungle-red varnished claw.
The story is a simple one: Matron loses enormously rich husband to conniving Saks perfume assistant. Matron learns conniving and wins him back.
It's a well-made play, and there are more subplots on the general theme of woman's inhumanity to woman than you could shake a swizzle stick at.
But it's not a particularly deep play - certainly no lost masterpiece, but one worth the occasional resuscitation - the last rather stylish Broadway incarnation was in 1973 with the likes of Myrna Loy and Alexis Smith - particularly in the light of today's ironic distancing.
Admittedly, you are not supposed to leave a play humming the costumes - but Isaac Mizrahi has devised costumes in deliciously artful variations on a period theme. Should we be in any doubt of the show as a fashion show, this will be allayed by the spectacle of the curtain calls when the cast of 24 women parade in bras, girdles and corsets of the period.
Luckily, the model cast is excellent and smooth under the direction of Scott Ellis, who perceives the play as a comedy of ill manners, the women in "The Women" - both upstairs and, interestingly, downstairs - are revealed with the surgical accuracy of a biologist.
Instead of relying on film stars of yesteryear, Ellis depends largely on the current generation of TV stars, and it works very nicely indeed.
Kristen Johnston is riotously over the top of even her high-heels as the gossipmongering Sylvia; Jennifer Coolidge proves a horrid delight as the self-centered, baby-hating Edith, and Mary Louise Wilson is all weary maternal sagacity as the heroine's mother.
Rue McClanahan as the wealthy and aging Reno multidivorcee, who has been there and back yet for amour is always willing to try again, and Jennifer Tilly as the platinum-digger with a heart of steel, have both been encouraged (or permitted) by Ellis to make their broads too broad.
But the production's casting and interpretive coup is Cynthia Nixon, as cool as a stirred but not shaken martini, as citric as its delicately floating twist, and as the wronged, spoiled but triumphant wife, defusing the role's sentimentality and providing it with it a modern slant.
She's a knockout in a show that, despite the overall acting, Derek McLane's witty and resourceful sets, and even Mizrahi's Moviegoer parade of '30s glamour, might otherwise only have won on points.
Girl fight! Girl fight! Watch 'em ladder their stockings, chip their nail polish, smear their makeup and tear each other's eyelashes out! And if we're really lucky, one of 'em will lose her dress!
Such are the sophisticated pleasures of urbane comedy according to Clare Boothe Luce. Her 1936 hit play, ''The Women,'' which opened last night in a bumpy revival from the Roundabout Theater Company, may be remembered by some as a clever toxology report on feminine venom of the Park Avenue variety. But its enduring and dubious appeal has more to do with the rowdy spectacle of ladies being anything but ladylike.
Certainly, the scene that got the biggest hand from the matinee audience with which I saw the show now shrieking at the American Airlines Theater was the second-act melee in which one glamourpuss bites another on the ankle. ''There's iodine in the bathroom,'' a concerned onlooker says. Answers the bitten party: ''Iodine? I need a rabies shot.''
Is it any wonder that when plans for this revival were announced, Scott Elliott, its talented but erratic director, received letters from drag queens begging him to cast them? Luce's all-female comedy presents a gallery of zinger-slinging grotesques that only a female impersonator could love.
Among the cast of characters are, as Brooks Atkinson described them 65 years ago in The New York Times, ''some of the most odious harpies ever collected in one play.'' Nonetheless, ''The Women'' slipped right under the critical radar of disapproval to assert that it indeed had gams, gams, going on to become a popular 1939 movie, directed by George Cukor, that is still the last word in all-star MGM camp. Film critics, pleased to see the likes of Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell getting down and dirty, were happier than their theatrical counterparts had been. ''A glorious cat-clawing rampage,'' wrote Frank S. Nugent in The Times.
Although ''The Women'' has been deconstructed in recent years by avant-gardists like the director Anne Bogart, and has even been defended in some quarters as a sharp feminist critique, the play remains a glorified cat show, made for overripe, over decorated stars to cut loose in.
That is more or less Mr. Elliott's approach. The production features dressed-to-maim costumes from the inventive Isaac Mizrahi, who shows typical wit in the black-and-white daywear of the first act. (The second-act clothes are often bizarrely unflattering.) And Derek McLane's set, in which Art Deco-era skyscrapers ingeniously open into satiny rooms, suggests a toyland version of Manhattan, a playground for babes cutting their fangs.
There are occasional glimmers of something more substantive -- most notably in a superb performance from Cynthia Nixon (of television's ''Sex and the City''), who finds layers of class-bred conflict and inhibitions in the play's noble heroine. And there are a couple of inspired comic turns from Jennifer Coolidge and Kristen Johnston as chummy character assassins.
But this ''Women,'' while often spirited, is also overwhelmingly shrill. You never feel that the ensemble members are all on the same wavelength, with a shared appreciation of the rarefied, poisonous social climate that has shaped their characters.
Accordingly, though the show has moments of loud hilarity, it moves in fits and starts. And it fails to bring oxygen to those tedious, theme-hammering passages in which members of both the upper and the servant classes exchange philosophies on woman's place in a man's world.
A virgin, in Ms. Luce's parlance, is ''a frozen asset.'' When Ms. Nixon's Park Avenue matron says of her young daughter, ''My poor baby, she doesn't want to be a woman,'' her maid answers matter-of-factly, ''Who does?'' Indeed. The most sage advice offered in the play is to hold on to your man, no matter what the price.
The central problem for Mary Haines (Ms. Nixon), and the conflict that sets the plot spinning, is that she doesn't accept such wisdom from her mother (Mary Louise Wilson, in a refreshingly underplayed performance). Egged on by her jealous, trouble-making friends, Mary files for divorce from the husband she loves, simply because he is having an affair with a common salesgirl, Crystal Allen (Jennifer Tilly).
It's those scheming, ill-intentioned friends who have always given ''The Women'' its verve. And fortunately this production has Ms. Johnston as Sylvia Fowler (the Rosalind Russell role in the movie) to deliver its juiciest mauvais mots. (To the intellectual novelist played by Lisa Emery: ''I'd rather face a tiger any day than the sort of things the critics said about your last book.'')
Ms. Johnston, best known for the sitcom ''Third Rock From the Sun,'' goes for caricature, but it's a consistently drawn and highly entertaining cartoon. Sylvia's affectations -- the plummy voice, the predatory gait -- match her armor of overelaborate clothes, which include an outlandish hat that looks like a serving of profiteroles.
Ms. Coolidge, playing the perpetually pregnant Edith Potter, provides the kind of refined study in vulgarity more commonly found in restoration comedies.
Her very presence, all doughy curves capped by inflated, cushion-like lips, exudes a spoiled, bovine complacency, marred only by the discomforts of pregnancy. And her profile in motherly disharmony with her newborn baby is the evening's comic peak.
A luscious young newcomer named Lynn Collins is terrific as the down-to-earth ex-chorine who bags Sylvia's husband. Rue McClanahan (the former ''Golden Girls'' star and an audience favorite) and Amy Ryan are, respectively, frenetically flashy and drab to the point of invisibility as a much-married countess and a humorless newlywed.
With a burnished patrician accent and a reflexive politeness that goes into deepfreeze at the first signs of danger, Ms. Nixon's Mary is first-rate and a great improvement on Norma Shearer's misty-eyed martyr of the film. Mr. Elliott (aided by Brian MacDevitt's lighting) shrewdly accents Mary's aloneness in the first act. Within this colorful carnival of viciousness, it suddenly registers that someone has been seriously hurt.
Ms. Nixon deserves a better sparring partner than Ms. Tilly, who delivers Crystal's crassness but none of her feral sexual cunning. Ms. Tilly has some funny and even endearing line readings, but she's too blatantly crude to be a persuasive man trap. And her big confrontation scene with Mary, in a fitting room in a swanky dress shop, has no electricity.
Ms. Tilly has also been given the unfortunate task of rising buck-naked from a bathtub, simply to give a sophomoric twist to an observation about Crystal's hair color. Now full-frontal nudity is a signature of Mr. Elliott's. (He even introduced it into a revival of Noël Coward's ''Present Laughter.'') Presumably, he is hoping here to restore some shock value to a play that long ago lost its ability to startle.
Or maybe he is underscoring the notion, which is indeed voiced in the play, that no matter how you dress her up, a woman is nothing more than the sum of her anatomical parts. Accordingly, the production sends its cast members out for their curtain calls wearing period corsets and lingerie.
The gimmick belabors the obvious, and it's definitely not worth the discomfort shown by some of the actresses. Luce, after all, has already stripped her women down to their basest impulses.
The program and posters for this production may feature a cat with claws unsheathed. But the four-legged felines I know have more charm, and certainly more subtlety, than the women of ''The Women.''
The hats and heels nearly walk off with the show in the Roundabout Theater Co.'s pretty, pink and pointless revival of Clare Boothe Luce's cat-clawed comedy "The Women." Scott Elliott's cast can't compete with the quotable bitchery of George Cukor's fabled film version, a classic of cinematic camp that is regularly being worn to filaments in gay VCRs the world over. But the director doesn't make any sustained attempts to dig beneath the text's glib surfaces, either. The result is a staging that will please neither the movie's rabid fans nor those hoping for a thoughtful reexamination of a potentially still-potent play.
The production does boast one notable asset that the movie doesn't: a real actress in the central role of Mrs. Stephen Haines, played onscreen by that plaster vessel of noble suffering, Norma Shearer. Cynthia Nixon's multifaceted and honestly felt performance as the wronged wife is the production's lone revelation, and it's a considerable one.
For the most part, however, an air of aimlessness perfumes Elliott's production. It sets in early, as Derek McLane's pink, rose-covered curtain rises to reveal the all-female cast in careful poses. They walk to the lip of the stage, smirk a bit and recede; the point remains elusive, as does that of a misguided curtain call requiring the entire cast to appear -- many looking distinctly uncomfortable, and who can blame them? -- in fancy period lingerie. The last-minute revelation of the characters' sartorial underpinnings only points up the fact that the production hasn't done much to expose their psychological ones.
That's a pity, because even through the hollow chatter of this mindless production you can sense a lot going on beneath the galloping wit of Luce's dialogue. With its formulaic plot and sketchy characters, "The Women" isn't a masterwork, by any means, but it remains compelling because it has a molten core of anger that still glows hot.
Superficially, the play seems to be a vivisection of women's vanity and venomousness: Mary Haines and her circle of plushly married girlfriends play bridge and gossip, have their hair and nails done and gossip, have babies and gossip, get divorces and gossip. But Luce's accusatory finger -- with its famously "jungle red" nail polish -- isn't actually pointed at the figures onstage. The play is really a seething indictment of the permanent state of powerlessness the female sex was reduced to by American society (which is to say, American men). The self-absorption and friendly betrayals so amusingly paraded across the stage are just the symptoms, not the disease.
The play was written in 1936, when the ambitions and competitive instincts of men could find an acceptable social outlet in business, but women were still locked out of that sphere of play (their segregation is tellingly symbolized by the lack of a single male presence onstage). Women could only compete for the attentions of men, and could only prove their value by asserting their attractiveness to the opposite sex.
As a result, their energies were turned against themselves and each other, with nasty -- if amusing -- results. (The only morally cultivated woman onstage, it's not so subtly suggested, is the mannish author Nancy Blake, played by a miscast Lisa Emery. She scorns the women's world and has no place in the men's either; off she goes to Africa …)
An inquisitive director with a taste for exploring the play's dark undercurrents of protest could bring them to the fore without discomposing the play's glittering comic surfaces (paging Joe Mantello), but Elliott's production ignores them in favor of securing as much easy laughter as possible. The cigarettes constantly dangling from the ladies' lips might be a hint that he's aware of the self-destructiveness that Luce suggests their predicament engendered, but then again it might just be a period-appropriate stylistic tic; the rest of the production offers few clues.
The performance of Jennifer Tilly in the role of Crystal Allen, the hard-bitten shopgirl who steals Mary's husband, is a case in point. Luce's play has some things to say about class divides as well as sexual ones, and the role of Crystal offers a chance to explore the fear and desperation that powered women of the underclass into the higher echelons of society. But Tilly's braying Crystal is a banal portrait of a platinum-blond mantrap from the wrong side of the tracks, nothing more.
Most of the rest of Elliott's cast of name-brand performers don't bring out the subtexts of Luce's writing, either, although they do full justice to Mizrahi's eye-filling parade of beautifully realized costumes. Kristen Johnston does a hilarious riff on Rosalind Russell's backstabbing Sylvia Fowler, and gets to wear some of Isaac Mizrahi's riotous headgear to boot. But there are only a few glimmers of depth in the performance -- chiefly a frozen look of pain followed by one of determination that play across Sylvia's face when she decides to unveil to Mary her husband's infidelity.
Jennifer Coolidge, as the serially pregnant Mrs. Phelps Potter, gets laughs with her oddly childish manner and rubber-raft lips, but her approach is happily cartoonish. Heather Matarazzo ("Welcome to the Dollhouse") and Rue McClanahan (endless TV) are simply unpersuasive in their smaller roles.
Nixon's sensitive performance as Mary thus stands out starkly, a rose among thorns, to borrow McLane's floral imagery. When Mary discovers her husband's affair, Nixon clarifies all the turbulent emotions that flutter in her heart: sadness and betrayal, shame and injured pride and, above all, a kind of luminous loneliness that infuses all her scenes. Only she and the tough but tender Mary Louise Wilson as her mother bring a full humanity to their characters. (Amy Ryan at least tries, but her role is tiny.)
And Nixon's presence adds extra dimensions to our interpretation of the play, thanks to this longtime stage vet's new prominence on TV's "Sex and the City," which can almost be seen as the late 20th century's tart riposte to Luce's play (and Cukor's picture).
Even in their cozy nests of communal femininity -- the beauty parlor, the dressing room -- the women of "The Women" were utterly isolated; the social and sexual orders pitted them against each other. The girls on "Sex and the City" may spend as much time shopping for shoes and getting waxed, but their sense of community is deep and true. Those jungle-red claws come in handy in the office, but they're delicately sheathed over brunch. This and other observations ignited by Nixon's performance offer food for thought that the rest of this calorie-free production never does.