Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" opens in the beauty shop of the small Louisiana town of Chinquapin on an early spring morning.
Our attention is focused on a formidable mass of black hair being teased and sprayed into submission by a nervous young woman behind it.
When the young woman turns the chair around so her subject can study the results, we see that under that piece of hirsute folk sculpture is Delta Burke.
For a second we fear this revival of Harling's play is going to be treated as a series of star turns. Not to worry.
Director Jason Moore has resisted any such temptation. Harling's play is as resilient as its six beautifully drawn characters, and Moore has found ail the humor and reality in them.
There are a few easy laughs in "Steel Magnolias," but the passage of time has shown what a finely constructed piece of theater it is, as resilient, as funny, as moving and as bracing as its marvelous title characters. Burke plays Truvy, the proprietress of the shop. She not only fixes the hair of her well-heeled clientele, but provides a kind of salon where they can dish about other matrons - and each other - and also find comfort for their everyday problems.
Burke shows the breezy authority and savvy as well as the tart tongue that have made Truvy the doyenne of Chinquapin beauticians.
Christine Ebersole plays M'Lynn, a socially prominent woman remarkable because she also works as a therapist. Freud probably doesn't carry much weight in Chinquapin, but her job makes her privy to even richer gossip than what floats out in the open. Ebersole plays her with a delicious sense of the burdens and pleasures of privilege.
Ebersole also has the one moment in the play where we can see something powerful beneath the well-managed faces, and she handles it superbly.
Rebecca Gayheart has a perfect cocksure carriage as her daughter Shelby, the prettiest girl in town. The play begins on Shelby's wedding day, and Harling delineates the relationship of mother and daughter elegantly through the way they wrangle over her coiffure.
Frances Sternhagen plays the widow of the town's recently deceased mayor, still adjusting to this change in her status. Needless to say, Sternhagen handles the role with wit and grace.
Marsha Mason is hilarious as Ouiser, a blunt and blowsy grande dame. Lily Rabe plays Annelle, Truvy's assistant, who undergoes the greatest changes. It would be easy to make Annelle a cartoon, but Rabe makes even her most outrageous moments humanly funny, even touching.
Anna Louizos' set conveys the cozy charm of the shop with wry but warm humor. There is great subtlety in David Murin's costumes. Howell Binkley's lighting adds immeasurably to the play's shilling moods.
Why pay good money to see something you can see on TV? That's the central problem besetting Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" -that and the fact that it's not a very good play.
Steel magnolias? Plastic daffodils are more like it.
In the production that opened last night at the Lyceum, a semi-stellar cast - Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Marsha Mason and Frances Sternhagen, each one ritually applauded on entry - is joined by Broadway newcomers Rebecca Gayheart and Lily Rabe.
Nearly all do their best with the material provided, though in this case, that's little more than triviality sculpted into a dramatic style.
This story - set in a women's beauty parlor in a small Louisiana town, and full of corny smiles leavened with bravely endured heartbreak - started life off-Broadway in 1987 as a mildly cute comedy of country manners.
Two years later, Harling enlarged it into a cuter but even milder movie script, memorable mostly for a good-natured Dolly Parton and a shining-eyed Julia Roberts.
Now, here it is on Broadway, with a hearts-and-flowers sentimentality and jokes more appropriate for a TV laugh track than a paying audience.
Directed with clunky predictability by Jason Moore, with an authentic but not especially pleasing setting by Anna Louizos and amusingly observed costumes by David Marin -as far as style is concerned, the production's high point - the play is hardly up to Broadway's standards.
Harling's wit runs to such lines as, "Time marches on and sooner or later you find it marching across your face," and, "One ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure." (I have no idea what that means.)
His best quip, which Sternhagen delivers with cool precision, is, "If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me." Unfortunately, Alice Roosevelt Longworth said it first.
As for, "The only thing that separates us from animals is our ability to accessorize" - wasn't that Diana Vreeland?
To the printed text, Harling offers an hubristic author's note: "The women in this play are witty, intelligent and, above, all real characters. They in no way, shape or form are meant to be portrayed as cartoons or caricatures." Is he delusional, or trying to blame the director and cast?
In fact, the cast works superhumanly hard to milk conventional humor out of Harling's sitcom stereotypes and cartoonish dialogue.
Ebersole, as a worried mother, seizes with amazing grace the play's one possibility of genuine feeling. Burke proves bluffly genial as the staunch beauty shop owner, and while the always admirable Sternhagen whenever possible injects a welcome little acidulation into the saccharine-flavored molasses, Marsha Mason is coarse and clumsy as an irascible curmudgeon with a heart of gold.
Rabe (daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh) flutes along perkily as Burke's born-again Christian assistant, and Gayheart is bright, exceptionally pretty and goes easy on the sugar as Ebersole's diabetic daughter.
All told, though, this little play isn't ready for prime time. But in fairness, the matinee audience at the preview I attended gave every sign of adoring it.
In ''Steel Magnolias,'' Robert Harling's freeze-dried comedy from 1987 about friendship among Southern women, people speak in the kinds of sentences that wind up embroidered on decorative pillows. None of the six actresses in the flat new production that opened last night at the Lyceum Theater actually say, ''Old age is not for sissies.'' But much of what is spoken is in the same sententiously homey vein: lines like ''There is no such thing as natural beauty'' or ''I'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.''
Cute and sassy or sweet and soggy, the dialogue sometimes achieves the distinction of being all these things at once. As one of the characters puts it, after a moment of sisterly communion with her friends, her favorite emotion is ''laughter through tears.''
That's certainly the response that this play, which became an Off Broadway chick hit before being adapted into an all-star movie in 1989, hopes to summon. Still, I found myself feeling more like the curmudgeonly character who says, ''I don't see plays because I can nap at home for free.'' Despite an ensemble featuring high-profile veterans of stage, film and television, sitting through ''Steel Magnolias,'' which is set in a beauty parlor in a small town in Louisiana, is like watching nail polish dry.
Revival probably isn't the right word for this latest incarnation of ''Magnolias,'' which features Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Marsha Mason and Frances Sternhagen in the roles played in the Herbert Ross film by Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis, respectively. Staged by Jason Moore, best known for directing the puppets (and people) of ''Avenue Q,'' the show has the feeling less of being brought to life than of having been taken out of storage like Christmas tree ornaments. (Such decorations, fashioned from hair rollers, are among the many whimsical accouterments that adorn Anna Louizos' set.)
In his script, Mr. Harling specifies that the characters are not ''meant to be portrayed as cartoons or caricatures.'' And the actresses in this production avoid the broadly eccentric schtick their deep-fried girl talk would seem to warrant.
But perhaps as a consequence, the style of acting is often vague and perfunctory, a quality enhanced by several actresses' still being unsure of their lines at the performance I attended. As they send their nonstop succession of quips into the audience, the cast members bring to mind sleepy Sunday golfers at a driving range, haphazardly hitting one shot after another from an overflowing bucket of balls.
Let it be said that the audience with whom I saw the show was so eager to like it that laughter greeted even lines that were clearly never intended to be funny. (Nor were they delivered as if they were.) And by the end of the second act, when darkness descends among the pastels of the beauty parlor that serves as an intimate women's club, the teary sniffles were as audible as the chuckles had been before.
For in telling his cozy tale of life and death among a small circle of gossipy bosom buddies, Mr. Harling presses emotional buttons with mechanical efficiency. Hearing a description of a brave young woman in a coma without misting up is to invite accusations of callousness. Still, it's hard to feel much about people who are defined almost entirely by their surface tastes: for example, liking pink or being a rabid football fan. In this sense, David Murin's costumes are as important in creating character as any actorly inflection.
Ms. Burke (best known for ''Designing Women'' on television) exudes microwave warmth as Truvy, the salon proprietor. The usually excellent Ms. Sternhagen twinkles a bit too preciously as the town's wisecracking rich woman, while Ms. Mason, who normally portrays melting softies, seems out of her element as the crankiest of the bunch.
Ms. Ebersole (a Tony Award winner for ''42nd Street'') plays the central role of a worried mother with a low-key tautness that is more admirable than it is affecting. And Rebecca Gayheart looks very pretty as her daughter, a part created on film by a star in the making named Julia Roberts.
The most vivid characterization comes from Lily Rabe, in her Broadway debut as Annelle, a runaway wife who becomes a born-again Christian and is the quirkiest of the quirk-riddled gals of ''Magnolias.'' Ms. Rabe has the sort of wistful, goofy sincerity that television producers are always looking for. Maybe she'll land a sitcom from this performance. The odds are that in artistic terms, it would be a step up.