In 2001, it's easy to look down one's nose at Luce's work and claim that the opinions she airs about women--not to mention the absent men--are dated now and may, in fact, never have been accurate. It might be more pertinent to say that, when Luce opened the cage door on the vicious human cats populating Manhattan's monied Upper East Side at the time, she was really writing from a very subjective place. But to get all hoity-toity about the author's tattletale wiles would be to underrate her achievements in a 1936 play that has had a longer life than many other items from that year. For all its generalizations about the sexes and, as a matter of fact, about the classes, The Women is extremely well constructed--especially if it was, indeed, jotted down so hurriedly. Anyone who dismisses the play would miss out on the generous dollop of fun dispensed in its current Roundabout revival, populated by a fashion parade of raucous and risible characters who aren't as unrelievedly petty as the show's reputation would suggest.
At the center of this swirl of gab and deceit is Mrs. Stephen Haines (Cynthia Nixon), who is sent to a beauty salon where she learns from a gossipy manicurist that Mr. Stephen Haines has thrown himself into an affair with a cheap salesgirl named Crystal Allen (Jennifer Tilly). Mary--as Mrs. Haines is known to the members of her circle--trips herself up as she goes about holding on to her marriage. She loses her hubby to Crystal but, two years after getting a Nevada divorce, figures out how to retrieve him. During the three years or so covered by the play, Mary listens to and learns not to listen to certain of her conniving buddies, in particular the hypocritical Mrs. Howard Fowler (Kristen Johnston) and the usually pregnant Mrs. Phelps Potter (Jennifer Coolidge). Among the others from whom she does or doesn't apprehend a few things are her mother, Mrs. Morehead (Mary Louise Wilson) and her daughter, little Mary (Hallie Kate Eisenberg).
As the play's exchanges accumulate, Luce's attitudes--conscious or not--emerge. Although she was making a life for herself as an independent woman and never really allowed herself to be thought of exclusively as Mrs. Henry Luce (she married the publisher in 1935), the author apparently agreed with the long-standing and widespread belief that women live in a man's world. By implication, she seems to share the opinion that women like the ones in her play behave as they do because, rich and bored, they have little else with which to occupy themselves. In Luce's scenario, the women whom she seems to admire (or, at least, the ones to whom she gives the wisest lines) are those who have accepted the situation, as Mary's mother has, or have decided to live in defiance of it, as the Edna Ferber-like chum Nancy Blake (Lisa Emery) does. Whether Luce means to, she also somewhat grandly salutes serving-class women as having a much better talent for getting their priorities straight. Three of these--an Elizabeth Arden factotum (Adina Porter), Mary's kitchen maid (Mary Bond Davis), and a Reno spa attendant (Julie Halston)--comment on the obtuseness of those socially superior to them. Among the lower class figures, only Crystal is scheming and shrill and has an answer for everything.
On balance, then, The Women may have as much to say in favor of women's deportment as it does against, although it's the dishy gals who are the most amusing to be around. (Isn't that always the case?) So perhaps the most questionable aspect of Luce's work is not her portrayal of intentional and unintentional betrayal; maybe it's her depiction of the sympathetic Mary. Yes, Mary ultimately gets her man--an ending the audience is rooting for and doesn't have much doubt of--but she does this through powder-room chicanery that has her sinking to Crystal's claws-out level rather than remaining above it, all in the service of continuing to merge her identity with her husband's. Luce is saying that, to win in the jungle, you have to go for the jugular.
Scott Elliott's production rings the bell frequently but also thuddingly hits the gong on a few occasions. Topping the plus category like a diamond tiara is Cynthia Nixon, who drops a not altogether convincing, upper-class accent fairly early on and nimbly makes Mary intelligent and attractive, a nice wife in love with her husband and hurt at losing him. Nixon, who has grown up on stage, proves here that she's ready to play any important role thrown at her. Jennifer Tilly, playing Crystal as she's played similar characters (see Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway), makes her verbal darts count; she also gets to do the nude scene that Elliott likes to include whenever he stages a classic. Others more than worth their salaries are Rue McClanahan as the forever-marrying Countess de Lage, Mary Louise Wilson as the knowing and likeable Mrs. Morehead, Lynn Collins as the no-nonsense Miriam Aarons, and Lisa Emery as the realistic Nancy Blake.
What Elliott may not understand, since certain of his actresses apparently don't, is a certain kind of Park Avenue behavior. When women have been to finishing schools, as the characters played by Kristen Johnston and Jennifer Coolidge have been, they have a Miss Porter's veneer that makes their deceptions all the more malicious. That veneer is not displayed here and should be. Both Johnston and Coolidge would have been better advised not to be quite so blatant, so blaring. As little Mary, Hallie Kate Eisenberg is monotone and irritating; if Elliott had to cast a so-so tyke actress, why not at least find one who looked more like Nixon? (Well, maybe Eisenberg is meant to be the spitting image of the offstage Mr. Haines.)
Much of the pre-opening publicity for this production was centered around the choice of Isaac Mizrahi to design the costumes. A savvy notion it's proved to be in many aspects; the fellow has labored so diligently that Elliott opens the show with the entire cast modeling the snazzy new Mizrahi line. Throughout, the designer comes up with high-class, eye-candy frocks; he even gets a huge laugh when he puts a skunk hat on Kristen Johnston. The suits, the sportswear, the gowns have great flair, though Mizrahi does hit a couple of false notes. Why the conservative Mrs. Morehead would wear a suit featuring huge polka dots is unclear; why Sylvia Fowler gets her comeuppance in an evening dress that looks more '50s than '30s is also puzzling. Further, Mizrahi had done few of the actresses a favor by sending them out for the curtain call in foundation garments. Maybe it was his and Elliott's thought that this would be effective as one more literal depiction of the play's figurative attempt to undress women, but the bit could just as easily have been discarded.
As it turns out, the contributions of set designer Derek McLane are as significant as those of Mizrahi. To underline Luce's contention that these women are living in a man's world, McLane has erected skyscrapers on the stage like so many phallic symbols. For the scenes, these pieces are moved and opened, making the man's-world surroundings ever more definite. When the ladies lounge around the Reno retreat, waiting for their papers to come through, they do so in a room where the walls are covered with stag heads. McLane counters the male emblems with vaginal imagery: The show curtain and proscenium are covered with voluptuous roses and, when Mary Haines sits are her vanity table, she faces a large, oval mirror framed by an even larger, padded, pink oval.