Annette Bening in The Female of the Species
(© Michael Lamont)
Annette Bening in The Female of the Species
(© Michael Lamont)
Motherhood, sexuality, identity and ideals all get heavily and hilariously whacked with a feminist 2x4 in Joanna Murray-Smith's farce, The Female of the Species, now getting its American premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. Under Randall Arney's energetic direction, and with the help of a small, starry cast led by the superb Annette Bening, The Female of the Species becomes a fast-moving 95-minute rollercoaster ride that culminates in a sharp, slam-bang finish.

Feminism and its ripple effects are certainly the primary targets here, but Murray-Smith also gets in digs at the decline of the publishing industry, where big thinking and the exploration of grand ideas are being sacrificed to the quick-buck successes of such lit lite genres as self-help, and the marketing appeal of such sexy key words as "lipstick" and "stiletto." This shift has cortributed to the writer's block plauging iconic, steel-willed author Margot Mason (Bening) whose books such as Madame Ovary and The Cerebral Vagina have had more impact than she could have ever imagined.

As the play begins, her latest book is past due to her long-time publisher, Theo (Julian Sands), and she's written less than 300 words. Into Margot's world -- specifically her isolated country house (beautifully realized by set designer Takeshi Kata) -- comes the gun-toting Molly Rivers (the scary-funny Merritt Wever), a university dropout once enamored of Margot until she was labeled a "no talent" in one of her writing classes. As it happens, Molly's rage at the blunt-talking Margot actually goes much deeper: Her mother abandoned the girl after reading The Cerebral Vagina and taking too literally Margot's charge to find a sense of self outside of motherhood, and then died under the wheels of a train, still clutching the book. Later, Molly had surgery herself to prevent her from having children. No wonder she's ready to kill.

Murray-Smith continuously escalates the action with dialogue full of witticisms and piercing observations, the introduction of new characters, and more outrageous circumstances. Aside from Molly, there's Margot's daughter, Tess (Mireille Enos), an exhausted mother of three who has her own issues with mom; Bryan (David Arquette), Tess' dull-witted husband who's in touch with his feminine side; Frank (the sexy Josh Stamberg), a tall, hunky taxi driver who completely unglues Tess with his masculine ways; and eventually, Theo, who needs Margot's book delivered now.

As Margot, Bening gets to not just chew up the scenery but rip it to shreds in her quest to defend her ultra-liberal perspectives, her lifestyle choices, and her fame. Her absolute commitment to the wild Margot is riveting, and the supporting cast more than capably keeps up with her.

There are some small quibbles, such as how a woman who went for a spontaneous early morning walk in her robe and pajamas finds money to pay for a train ride and cab fare. But such questions do little to detract from the enjoyment of this lively, entertaining production.