Mary Louise Wilson in The Women(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Mary Louise Wilson in The Women
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
America's obsession with gossip may have slipped a notch in recent weeks, but those catty gals of The Women, Clare Boothe Luce's gleeful bitch-fest, are back on Broadway with claws fully extended. First produced 65 years ago, this acid portrait of Upper East Side socialites and their merry-go-round of marriages and affairs strikes a surprisingly contemporary chord.

As usual, the Roundabout Theatre Company has attracted a cast of big names for Scott Elliott's revival at the American Airlines Theatre, including Cynthia Nixon as Mary, the good-hearted heroine; Jennifer Tilly as Crystal, the low-rent Other Woman; and Kristen Johnston as Sylvia, the best friend from hell. Adding spice to the proceedings is Mary Louise Wilson as Mary's mother, who makes a forceful argument in favor of keeping up appearances and ignoring infidelity. All in all, The Women reads like a feminist nightmare. But, says Wilson, audiences love a good catfight--especially when some of the funniest actresses in theater and film are doing the fighting. "Everyone in this cast is wonderful, and I never think that," Wilson says with a huge laugh. "It gets better every night."

After a week of previews, Wilson was in fine form as she gave her unvarnished opinion of The Women. This is the actress's second time out with the show; she played Nancy, the virginal voice of reason, in the 1973 Broadway incarnation. She has also co-written and starred in Full Gallop, the frequently produced one-woman play about Diana Vreeland. Most recently, Wilson received a Tony nomination for her Fraulein Schneider in the Roundabout's Cabaret and a Drama Desk nomination for the Signature Theatre Company's revival of John Guare's Bosoms and Neglect.

**************

THEATERMANIA: What's the difference between this production of The Women and the 1973 revival?

MARY LOUISE WILSON: The difference is pizzazz. That production [in 1973] was just a dud. I don't know if this is politic to say, but we had movie stars who were no longer movie stars: Myrna Loy, Alexis Smith, Rhonda Fleming. Now, we have actresses who are currently film and TV stars. [laughs]

TM: Who directed the 1973 production?

MLW: It was supposed to be directed by Ellis Rabb, but he pulled out--probably because [the producers] wanted to center the show on Rhonda Fleming. Ellis liked to do his own casting. Then it was done by Morton Da Costa, an old-time director. He used to crochet during rehearsals. Dorothy Loudon was in it and was very funny, but it wasn't an ensemble--it was the star ladies and the rest of us. This production is not like that. There's a terrific amount of affection in the cast.

TM: It's a rather distasteful play to read.

MLW: Well, I thought, "This is so not PC." And everyone says the characters are such bitches. But they're just human. Actually, the play tends to move you in some way--the idea that you've lost the one person you love. I took the part of the mother because I saw the movie and I so loved that actress, Lucille Watson, in her scenes. I thought, "This is a moment of sanity."

TM: What's your overall opinion of the play itself?

MLW: I don't think it's very good. [huge laugh] It's not very well written and it's long-winded. Everybody says way too much; it's not quick, the way we talk now. But the overall effect really is kind of touching, which I think is largely due to the acting and the production.

TM: Scott Elliott seems like an unusual director for this, given his penchant for dark, contemporary plays [Goose-Pimples, Ecstasy].

MLW: I didn't know if I was going to like him, and I love him. He's on you all the time to be swift and truthful, but he's also open to suggestions; he's not a fascist. He listens, which is the best thing you can ask for in a director, and he knows what he's after. A director should be able to tell actors what the play is about and how we all serve it so that we're not just serving ourselves.

Lynn Collins, Cynthia Nixon, Lisa Emery, Jennifer Coolidge,Amy Ryan, and Rue McClanahan in The Women(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Lynn Collins, Cynthia Nixon, Lisa Emery, Jennifer Coolidge,
Amy Ryan, and Rue McClanahan in The Women
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
TM: What's Elliott's take on The Women?

MLW: I think he thinks it's a revealing look at human behavior and how one gender lets its hair down. It could have been a play with all men; that would have interested him, too. He's interested in how the human animal interacts, and there's a lot of interaction in this play.

TM: Do you think there are still mothers out there urging their daughters to stay in a marriage in which the husband is cheating?

MLW: I don't. On the other hand, I have a friend who separated from her husband because she found out he was sleeping with somebody. He told her that he didn't care about the other woman but she didn't want to listen. I think it's stupid to break up over that, because sex is so unimportant. It's dangerous, yes, but sex is so not love. We all know married people who have little dalliances and it doesn't mean anything about their relationship with their spouse.

TM: That's a fairly modern view of marriage, Mary Louise.

MLW: It is modern, isn't it? And that's what my character tells her daughter. In a funny way, we've come full circle. Truthfully, when I read that in the play, I thought, "I'm going to have to say this?" Of course, now I believe it totally--because it's mine! I'm into it! But I do wish my friends would get back together. At this point in my life, I never think anything is all or nothing. It's not possible.

TM: You have my favorite line in the play: "It's marvelous to be able to sprawl out in bed like a swastika."

MLW: That line always gets a huge laugh. This production is very much set in the '30s. I get to wear all these gorgeous clothes. It's great fun.

TM: What's your life these days, away from the theater?

MLW: I have a house upstate and I'm an insane gardener. I've gone completely around the bend. I'm lying in bed here thinking, "Is my garden getting enough water?" All I do is water. You know, I don't like all the schmugger-bugger that goes on [in New York] around the theater. I love acting and I love actors, but I'm not good at networking.

TM: Your role in Bosoms and Neglect was a good fit for you. Are there any other parts you've got your eye on?

MLW: I would like to play some awful, old, butt-scratching woman. [laughs] And I'd love a huge clown part, but I can't find it for my age. I'm basically a clown.

TM: Do you continue to write?

MLW: Yes. I wrote a story that was published in The New Yorker in April. That was the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me! I had sent it to Nancy Franklin, who reviewed me in Full Gallop, and then I waited a year to hear. It was about life in Greenwich Village in the old days; I lived there for almost 40 years. I wish I could write more, but acting and my garden distract me. And of course, after the World Trade Center attack, it's very difficult because all words seem fatuous.

TM: Audiences must find The Women an amusing distraction from the news.

MLW: I think so. We got a letter from somebody who was in the building across the street from the World Trade Center and she said that the play was a wonderful escape. I think you'll like it. It's like The Producers--it's so blown-up, you can't really get mad at it. Just drop all your expectations and have fun.