Not even a plucky and agreeably tart performance by the accomplished Judith Ivey, playing a libidinous Cockney shunning a workaday existence, can disguise the claptrap nature of "Steaming," a ladies-day (and night)-in-a-Turkish-bath opus that landed at the Atkinson last evening. And the part lets her down, too, before the gaseous, episodic evening is done.
In this first play by Nell Dunn, now in its second year in London's West End, Ivey is one of a handful of women, including the attendant, who discuss mainly the men in their lives over a period of a couple of months during visits to a shabby, and doomed, London Turkish bath they frequent to keep in shape and dish the dirt.
Dunn's comedy means to show how females are exploited by males. Two of the six have been deserted for other women by their mates; two more, a mother and daughter, share some mysterious secret about a cop possibly having forced his attentions on the girl; Ivey's Josie has such a consuming interest in sex that she even submits to beatings and other forms of debasement on occasion; and the middle-aged attendant appears to have resigned herself to a comfortable, if not stimulating, union, though she gives little indication of being a great comfort herself. From some time in November to some time in January in the late '70s, this clutch of stock characters mounts a last-ditch effort to save their haven, an effort that fails when, in an address we hear only as recalled later that evening at the bath, Ivey demonstrates the impassioned plea she has made to the district councilmen, who plan to replace the bath with a costly new library.
Since, along with three of the others, the frisky and narcissistic Josie appears in the nude a good deal of the time, it might be mentioned that her figure merits the widespread attention it evidently receives. Also attractive, and occasionally unclothed, is the slightly older Nancy (Linda Thorson), a reserved and educated woman of some means who has abstained from sex since her husband walked out on her and their teenage son after 17 years of seemingly contented married life. Nancy's best friend Jane (Margaret Whitton, also in the buff for stretches) has been sleeping around since her marital breakup. The retarded (but only by her mother, it appears, when she joyously strips off her plastic wrappings late in the play) girl named Dawn (Lisa Jane Persky), her elderly and rather stupid mother Mrs. Meadows (Polly Rowles), and the brisk but friendly attendant Violet (Pauline Flanagan) complete the cast.
These ladies, of course, might just as easily have unburdened themselves at a weekly card party or coffee klatch, but the Turkish-bath setting, with its vaulted ceiling, stained tiles, old shower stall, steam room door from which puffs are emitted each time it's opened, and small pool downstage, is intended to divert our attentino from the slip-shod script.
There are occasional flashes of humor, which Ivey and Thorson make the most of in their respective ways - the one offhand, the other deadpan - but the writing is crude and the theatrical flourishes obvious, as when the suddenly liberated Dawn pops out of the steam room with her bare breasts decorated with lipstick, or when Violet herself appears in a gaudy swimsuit and cap toward the finish as, one after the other, these good companions jump into the pool to splash merrily about.
More to the point, these types are too transparent to effectively underscore the author's lesson about man's inhumanity to woman, and both the nudity and explicit language have the stale, familiar look and sound of '60s theater here. Roger Smith has staged the play spiritedly, even acutely at times, without ever being able to surmount its flatness and predictability. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's excellent setting (you can practically smell the sweat and "oil of wintergreen") deserves a far better play, and its seedy grandeur has been artfully illuminated by Pat Collins. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes, when worn, are both amusing and functional. But aside from the invigorating Ivey, there is neither heat nor warmth in "Steaming."
If Paul Revere were still in business he would need a new horse for the current Broadway season. The British invasion continues unabated. Last night at the Brooks Atkinson, Nell Dunn's Steaming was the latest bundle from Britain to arrive in New York.
Steaming, a hit of the London season before last, is a first play for Miss Dunn, a TV writer and novelist. It is set in a once solid but now almost melted London working-class institution dating from the turn of the century - the Ladies' Turkish Baths.
They were once to be found in almost every London borough - for men as well as women - and were combination bath houses, steam rooms, and, willy-nilly, social clubs.
Now a species endangered by progress, a few remain, rococo monuments to a social past, all conceived in that special kind of gloomy civic architecture - applicable to schools, prisons, libraries, police stations, and public baths alike - that might be called Municipal Gothic.
Miss Dunn sets her scene in the late '70s. First she shows us a group of women - five of them plus a bath attendant - who are habitues of the baths, unconsciously raising their consciousness while slipping from steam room to plunge pool. Then she shows us the impact on her group of the bath's threatened closure by the authorities.
The play has more of a theme than a plot. The theme is the need for women to communicate, for they are all sisters under their sweating steam-room skins. And also that women - all women, from part-time whore to full-time lady - are motivated by their need for love, and specifically love from a man.
The idea of women stripping naked, losing their inhibitions with their clothes, and talking au naturel is original - and for the most part Miss Dunn's play is sharp, pointed, and witty. The sharpness is predictable, the points conventional, and the wit a little hothouse forced, but the total impression is pleasantly provocative.
The playwright has chosen a neat cross-section of women. The working-class girl, cheerfully bent on sexual gratification and getting beaten up in the process, finds a match in all the other women - all automatic victims in a man's world.
Motherhood, it seems agreed, offers some compensations - but even then, one of the mothers finds herself inordinately pleased at having produced a son rather than a daughter. Men are the enemy. Men and the loneliness that results from their absence.
The dialogue is salty, and the characters have those carefully defined stylized dimensions of reality that are the pride of British TV.
Steaming is a play that engages the mind rather than the heart. These women and their troubles never really touch us - or, at least, they didn't touch me - but the opportunity to be a voyeur and eavesdropper on either gender in locker-room isolation is always a heady one. Towels seem to have a strong relationship to truth.
The cavernous and detailed bath structure - complete with living steam and a live plunge pool - has been lovingly reconstructed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg. But the costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser are just a touch too smart, too glamorized - the first indication that the production has not traveled all that well on its transatlantic crossing.
The director Roger Smith is the same as in London, but the cast is totally new and in at least one vital respect, different.
In London the actresses were nice ordinary women, with nice ordinary bodies. In New York the women have bodies that could well have auditioned for Oh, Calcutta! just down the street. Some degree of vulnerability is lost when the women look as much like models as actresses.
The performances as a whole are not nearly as strong as they were in London. All the women are sweet and understanding, but lack the authority and sense of ensemble shown by their far more authentic British counterparts.
There are, however, two good performances. Polly Rowles is effective as the over-protective mother of a retarded teenager, and Judith Ivey, while far too glamorous, gets wild and lovely fun out of the topless go-go dancer who believes that male exploitation is a feminine right.
But must the women enter and leave the steam room in full makeup and jewelry? This seems symptomatic of why Steaming is not quite either so hot or so warm as it was in London. Yet it still offers a cleansing, observant glance at women unobserved.
Nell Dunn's ''Steaming'' has the most literally splashy ending imaginable: virtually its entire female cast jumps nude into an onstage swimming pool. But the real splash being made at the Brooks Atkinson, where this British comedy opened with an American company last night, has nothing to do with water - it has to do with an actress's talent. In the end, ''Steaming'' won't be remembered for its nude bathing or for its intermittent comic pleasures, but for the fact that it gives Judith Ivey her stake to stardom.
Miss Ivey is overdue for the recognition about to come her way. She's been doing extravagantly versatile work for some seasons now - most recently as Jane Lapotaire's matinee fill-in in ''Piaf'' and as a wacky unreconstructed 1960's communard Off Broadway in ''Pastorale.'' Her role in ''Steaming'' is another dramatic switch. Miss Dunn's play is about six London women who meet regularly for conversation and steam at a public Turkish bath, and Miss Ivey's heroine, Josie, is about the most low-class of the bunch: a tarty Cockney, who delights in being a plaything for men.
Josie loves to provoke her more strait-laced bathhouse acquaintances with uninhibited accounts of her sexual fantasies and exploits. Whether wearing her vulgar fur-and-denim outfits (wittily designed by Jennifer von Mayrhauser) or strutting about only in high-heeled slippers, she always seems to be admiring her own body. And no wonder. Lacking emotional roots and the education required for a decent job, she has concluded that her sexuality is her sole passport to survival. As long as she can find a man to keep her, she'll never starve.
At first Miss Ivey plays the woman as just a brazen, salty-mouthed good-time-girl. Her unruly blond hair piled high, her compact and lipstick always at the ready, she folds her face into a gleaming lascivious smile so broad it meets her squinting eyes. She's not only a narcissist - she's also proud of her way of life. Speaking of her current lover, she says, ''He sleeps in my bed - he's entitled to pay my bills,'' and it never occurs to her that such logic might be challenged. When she cheerily dreams aloud of charging men just to see her naked, Miss Ivey manages to make lewdness seem innocent: Josie could easily be caricatured, but the actress is totally inside the character's frequently exposed skin.
But eventually Josie's offstage lover bruises her skin in a quarrel, and the real stripping begins. In her best-written speech, Josie explains what it's like to trade sexual favors for employment - and confesses the humiliating toll paid in loss of self-respect. It's a monologue that rises imperceptibly into a moving outpouring of pent-up anger and desperation, laced with an unarticulated terror of growing old. And then, suddenly, Miss Ivey is back to Josie's invulnerable usual self, and we never do figure out just how the performer has lifted and dropped the curtain on the woman's soul without letting us see any of the transitions. Just call it bravura acting.
Next to Josie - who, happily, is the dominant figure - nothing else in ''Steaming'' is so fleshy or seamless. This is the first play by Miss Dunn, a novelist, and her inexperience shows. The other women at the baths are types - implausibly thrown together so that the playwright can conveniently portray a cross-section of British femininity spanning all ages and classes. The play's substance is essentially a sea of consciousness-raising discussions that ultimately propel the diverse characters to embrace one another in sisterhood.
The women are also drawn into feminist solidarity by Miss Dunn's contrived plot. Late in Act I, it's announced that the Town Council wants to tear down the old bathhouse to build a new library, and the women band together to fight the demolition. The author advances this story by periodically sending characters through the set's center door, like Greek messengers, to recite the latest developments. But even if less primitively dramatized, the women's political struggle would still fail to ignite an American audience, which may well wonder whether there's any ideological justification for opposing the construction of a public library.
Miss Dunn's polemical attitudes may also strike most American theatergoers as old hat or simplistic. Her women tend to treat the obvious as revelations (''We've got to believe that we're just as important as men!''); the only members of the opposite sex they seem to know (all offstage) are rats. Just before the final skinny dip, Miss Dunn unconvincingly waves feminism like a magic wand to solve all her women's problems.
Though in no way an accomplished play, ''Steaming'' is still lightly enjoyable when it isn't preaching. The talk is often amusing and seemingly authentic. While the creaky theatrical devices prevent Miss Dunn from achieving the pure realism of David Storey's look into an all-male British locker-room, ''The Changing Room,'' we do believe that we're getting at least the flavor of what it's like to eavesdrop on contemporary English-women letting their hair down.
The New York production, like London's, has been directed by Roger Smith, who usually avoids sledgehammer comic effects to reinforce the script's strongest asset - its homely sincerity. Though his supporting players are limited by the writing, there is good work from Linda Thorson as a frigid upper-class woman on the ropes, Margaret Whitton as her flightier best friend and Pauline Flanagan as the saintly matriarch who is the bathhouse's longtime attendant. Polly Rowles and Lisa Jane Persky struggle less successfully with both the accents and vague outlines of an eccentric mother and her misfit daughter.
The American ''Steaming'' contains far more nudity than the London version, but it's handled un-self-consciously and adds verisimilitude where once there was prurient coyness. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's new set, evocatively lighted by Pat Collins, is also an improvement: a grand but decaying municipal edifice, complete with corroded pipes, sooty tiles, showers and cots, as well as that downstage pool. The scenic atmosphere is so potent that it even adds a measure of depth and warmth to the play's more shallow and tepid interludes. It is always Miss Ivey, however, who gives ''Steaming'' its saving bursts of steam.