Is there any group of people more taken for granted by the theater (by the world) than older women? They’re expected to check their privilege with their coats and make space while quietly paying full admission at many of our most prestigious venues. Deviate from this routine, and you run the risk of being branded a Karen. Stay in your place, and you continue to be practically invisible. Well, at least at the by-no-means prestigious Actors Temple, old ladies are getting their say in Sandra Tsing Loh’s provocative Madwomen of the West.
It’s the sixty-[redacted] birthday of Claudia (Melanie Mayron), a photographer whose career is on the wane. Jules (Brooke Adams) hosts the event in her Brentwood home, while Marilyn (Caroline Aaron) rustles up some Party City decorations and a pupu platter. They settle in for a cozy brunch among friends, but all that changes when they learn of the imminent arrival of their estranged fourth, Zoey (Marilu Henner).
Marilyn cheats out to the audience and asks, “Our former actress friend turned international wellness guru?!?” — as if the two other women at the party don’t know exactly who she is. Loh cheekily plows through such exposition with a script that is both self-aware and self-deprecating. The goal was never to write a perfectly crafted drama, with timeless human quandaries springing seamlessly from an airtight plot. Rather, Loh seems interested in placing four women of a certain age, but with different perspectives, onstage where they can hash it out. That makes this play feel like a long “Hot Topics” segment on The View, beyond the watchful eye of the mouse and his team of HR enforcers.
“Five years ago, less than 1% of the U.S. said they were trans,” says Marilyn. “This year, at Westgate Girls School? An entire third of 8th grade is trans…It’s the new bulimia.” She later ponders, “I wonder: if this taking hormones, and having surgery — If this ‘I don’t want to be a girl’ thing is just one more way for teen girls to hate themselves.” This is a suspicion I’ve never heard uttered from the stage of an off-Broadway theater, but it’s one that millions of reasonable people certainly have. By putting it in her show, Loh not only meets her audience where they are, but scoops up rich dramatic material from the floor where it has been so carelessly discarded.
Obviously, the other women don’t see things exactly the way Marilyn does (Claudia has a trans child, which isn’t to say she’s fully onboard). And therein lies the drama, as these four women grapple with menopause, professional expectations, shifting marital relationships, and the nagging disappointments of womanhood in America.
Aaron makes a particularly compelling advocate for her character, a liberal educator caught in the riptide of shifting culture. She turns to the audience and says, “God, do we need Hillary now? RIGHT?!?” And by the raucous response, you’d think she was talking about the Kaiser to a group of Prussian Junkers circa 1931. Every line is so sharp, every retort so perfectly timed, that we leave with no doubt about who Marilyn is and what she stands for. We can easily imagine her becoming the charismatic dictator of a new country, the borders of which roughly align with the Upper West Side.
The other three actors match her passion, if not her precision. Adams conceals Jules’s incandescent rage behind an innocuous smile. Mayron’s Claudia conveys the exhaustion of a woman who has spent years fighting on multiple fronts. In contrast, Henner beams onstage like an aggressive ray of sunshine. Rich and famous, her Zoey has ostensibly won the game by embracing a granola-munching, kombucha-guzzling vision of contemporary womanhood (a late monologue about masturbation serves as a climax). Part of the fun of Madwomen of the West is seeing how the people who know her best, her true friends, chip away at that façade.
Thomas Caruso directs with a light hand, delivering a well-paced staging that mostly stays out of the way of the performers. Christian Fleming’s faux-ritzy scenic design (the golden pineapple coffee table is especially hideous) offers an appropriate setting for this live chat show, with well-selected costumes by Sharon Feldstein and Erin Hirsh. The lights (by Pamela Kupper) and sound (by Max Silverman) create little theatrical embellishments, so we’re never under the delusion that what we’re witnessing is strict realism — even if the views expressed are quite authentic.
As contrived as it is, Madwomen of the West still fascinates with its unapologetic and humorous depiction of older women and their grievances, and would make an ideal post-brunch activity for you and your close circle of friends. It’s sure to get you talking.