by Hugh Hunter
“The Women” (1936) by Clare Boothe Luce enjoyed a good Broadway run before being turned into a hit movie in 1939 with Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. Some critics found the work misanthropic, but audiences howled with laughter.
Now playing at The Drama Group, Robert Bauer directs this revival of “The Women” with sure-handed cabaret flair. It starts off with a bang as 10 foxy ladies in tight black evening dresses fill the stage to deliver a delightfully naughty prologue.
The plot (to the extent that there is one) centers on Mary, an upper class wife and mother who learns hubby has taken up with a department store counter girl. While Mary stands firm in her belief in the value of loving marriage, the catty frolics of other women in her class just add to her torment.
A talented all-female cast play nearly 40 roles. Manhattan socialite Sylvia (Brie Knight) is the main trouble-maker. Sporting her “jungle red” fingernails, she gossips with unrestrained glee. Crystal (Mlé Chester) is the husband’s blonde floozy, an attractive and strikingly dour predator.
Numerous characters leaven the play with gritty humor. Novelist Nancy (Shannon Sexton) flounces about with some of Luce’s best zingers. She describes her virginity as a “frozen asset.” Mary Pat Walsh is hilarious as both the often-married Countess de Lage and a garrulous Irish cook.
The many scene changes in this production mesmerize, complete with a sound track of Broadway songs from the ‘30s. The play abounds in sub-plots, and these flamboyant women give Mary an “education.” It is a tough role to play, and Michele S. Scutti avoids being mousy so that her final transformation is credible.
“The Women” is satire. The upper class women here are so insular you would never guess the play is set in the midst of the Great Depression. The working class women who pamper them — cooks, salon workers, shopkeepers — mock this Park Avenue set whenever they get the chance.
While class satire comes across, it tends to get crowded out by the still more mocking view the play takes of all relationships. Men never appear on stage but are often talked about, a hapless bunch of vainglorious louts who need to be managed for fun and profit. When it comes to men and women, Luce is an equal opportunity scoffer.
Mary triumphs in the end, but only by learning to be as catty as her rivals. Does her idealism survive? That is an open question. “The Women” may lack moral gravitas; but if you like the guilty pleasure of cerebral and naughty humor, you don’t want to miss this show.
The Drama Group is located at the First United Methodist Church at 6001 Germantown Ave. “The Women” will run through Nov. 26. Tickets available at 215-844-0724 or at the door.