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Flying Fur

Lessons for The Women are as relevant as ever

Watch out! The "jungle-red" claws of the catfighting ladies in Clare Boothe Luce's The Women are as sharp as ever, especially in Main Street Theater's hysterical revival of the 1936 classic. Indeed, Luce's gaggle of gossipy, spitting kittens who live for nothing but their men still packs a mighty punch -- even if it is of the old-fashioned fluttery-female variety.

Luce's very un-PC story focuses on the marital woes of wide-eyed Mary, a wealthy New York matriarch who must learn what her own mother knows from the start: that married ladies should ignore the infidelities of their spouses (men will be men, after all), and women who trust other women are fools. This is strange politics for thinking ladies of the 2003 variety, but anyone willing to check their political correctness at the door should enjoy Luce's vicious story of tongue-wagging and hair-pulling. The show is a scream in the hands of director Ron Jones and his capable and glamorous cast.

The collection of oddball dames who populate this rarefied New York world of big money and bad behavior has been played by fine actresses over the years. Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford starred in the 1939 film version. The 2001 Broadway revival featured the likes of Meg Tilly and Third Rock from the Sun's Kristen Johnston. Main Street Theater has assembled its own impressive group of ladies to shape Luce's wild bunch of characters into a ferociously funny force of estrogen to reckon with.

(From left) Roberts, Calene-Black and Bonasso pep up the production.
Main Street Theater
(From left) Roberts, Calene-Black and Bonasso pep up the production.

At the center of the feline fight is Joanne Bonasso's Mary. All creamy-skinned sweetness, Mary still lives in a dream of marital bliss. Her children are perfect and her husband is dutifully in love. Or so she thinks. Leave it to her "friends" to show her otherwise.

The baddest of the bad is Celeste Roberts's gorgeously cat-eyed Sylvia, a heartless vamp who can't wait for her opportunity to corrupt Mary's innocence. It's Sylvia who sends Mary to the tattling manicurist. Sylvia flashes her scarlet nails before Mary's eyes and purrs "jungle-red" in Mary's naive ear. Imagine the dear girl's shock when she arrives at the salon only to find out her perfect hubby has been doing the town with a department store counter-girl of the greedy, grasping, blond-bimbo type.

Oh, woe is Mary, especially when she pooh-poohs the sage advice of her levelheaded mother (Claire Hart-Palumbo) to ignore the whole thing. Hubby loves Mary after all. He's just doing what men do. And whatever Mary does, she's not to tell another soul she knows about her man's infidelity, most especially her friends. Back in the 1930s mothers seemed to know so much more than nowadays. Sure enough, just as Mother said, Mary's girlfriends proceed to destroy her marriage as soon as the cat's out of the bag.

Anyone who knows anything about women's stories before the sexual revolution knows where Mary's tale will end. But before she finds her way there, she must first encounter all the fine ladies who run to raging Reno when their marriages fail. And that's where the real fun starts.

Everyone's there, starting with Lisa Marie Singerman's virginal Nancy, the dry wit of a writer (and the lone working woman of Mary's set) whose last book had "two readers." Sylvia Froman's grandly aging Countess de Lage makes a charmingly weepy appearance, moaning long and loud about her younger cowboy gigolo husband, who leaves her for a floozy. And Shelley Calene-Black is appropriately wicked as Crystal Allen, the platinum-haired tart who steals Mary's man. It isn't long before the fur starts flying when these ladies of luxury get into who said what to whom.

The charming lead cast gets terrific support from an "ensemble" of players who do everything from file nails to pour coffee to move Igor Karash's impressively mobile art deco set pieces around. These set pieces function as everything from dressing room mirrors to manicurist tables. And when Calene-Black floats onto the stage submerged in a tub of bubbles made of white netting, the feminine effect is wonderfully theatrical. Also impressive are Sarajane Milligan and Rebecca Greene Udden's costumes. Bonasso looks increasingly gorgeous with each new change, from rose-colored velvet to striped taffeta. Jones has directed with deft comic timing and added an ingenious dimension by having the supporting players move the set as they gossip about the previous scene. The effect comes off like a series of almost musical interludes filled with birdlike women's voices girlishly gabbing away.

This is perhaps not the show for the most stridently feminist theater lovers. But for everyone willing to take their politics with a side of humor, The Women offers a deliciously whimsical froth of fun played by an ensemble of actresses who prove that (contrary to everything Luce seems to be saying) women do great work when they stick together.

 
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