Timeless and Epic, ‘The Women’ Is Sharp and Catty Comedy at its Finest
Sixteen actors take stage in Harlequin Productions’ very strong production of the lush classic comedy. It plays in Olympia through this Saturday.
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
The ladies of The Women have friends — lots of them. They buzz in and out of each other’s parlors. But it’s quickly clear that the same smiling mouths who praise and coddle them one moment will glower in their misfortunes the next, just as soon as they’ve stepped out of the room.
The drama at the center of The Women is a familiar one: scorned by men and women alike, the all-female characters take pleasure in the misfortunes of those they envy and others who have done them in. It’s a simple plot; the whole thing could be told and over in 30 minutes or so. But Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 play — which opened on Broadway that same year and has had notable revivals — weighs in at a whopping three hours. What takes so long?
Mostly, The Women is a play of characters and relationships rather than complex plot, and both the script and Harlequin’s lovely production of it do well to let those simmer.
Raucous and colorful supporting characters are as key as the leads. Central character Mary is a doting wife and homemaker who learns of her husband’s infidelity through a series of gossipy events that her “friends” led her right into. Her friend Sylvia is a strategic gossip who plants the seeds of drama around town. Career-centered Nancy is a sharp wit and writer who’s never been married, a fact she treats with relief. A hard-drinking Countess, a menagerie of manicurists and sales clerks, a no-nonsense exercise instructor, and dozens more fill in The Women‘s lively roster. All in all, it’s a Manhattan high-society play full of first-world problems and first-rate backstabbing; but with enough good will to make the characters endearing if flawed ones, rather than villains. Sixteen actors play twice as many characters, and Harlequin’s casting of them is superb. (See full cast info here.)
The play is the sort of no-men-needed women-centered relationship-tragedy-comedy that’s been reborn in film and serial hits like The First Wives Club and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, both also set in New York, and both of which are delights. And while there are signs of age — the women are perhaps too catty, too obvious, too dependent on their men, to be recognized in modern femininity — in the 1930s, The Women might have been well ahead of its time. Even with a bit of pointed hyperbole, it makes a current statement expressed time and again, from politics to romance to workplace to friendship: Why are women so quick to go after one another?
The women’s dynamics with one another are accented by the lack of men on stage. Though we hear lots about them, the whole time there’s not a single man seen or heard from. It works very well, letting the women’s interpersonal relationships — conflicts and betrayals, friendships and victories — be the primary focus, in which the same among the women with men are context rather than center stage.
Direction from Erin Murray is smart and inventive, together with scenic design by Bruce Haasl: using a lazy Susan of a stage to flip the scenes, while the characters run and dance along its border to mark the passage of time and place. Particularly effective is the scene change which finds them traipsing through the snow in furs to a fancy party, making the journey an integral part of the action rather than hopping along to the scene. Their transitions feel at once timeless and updated, with a soundtrack from the likes of Madonna, Whitney, and Paula Cole (sound design by Gina Salerno). And the costumes are positively luscious (design by Darren Mills). From the set pieces to hair to dressing, the crew and designers spent a lot of care here. It shows.
The play is three hours long. There’s no getting around that. But this one zips along, and the actors, direction, and design work come together so nicely that those three hours are a treat rather than a chore. (This from a viewer who will usually take a 70- minute show over the longer alternatives any day.) Harlequin’s production of The Women is a lively play crafted wonderfully well, and those three hours feel like time well-spent.
The Women runs through 10/26 at the State Theater in downtown Olympia. Tickets $35, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom near the entrance to house left. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: $15 rush tickets available to all, 30 minutes before showtime, if any unsold seats remain.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.