Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's recent review of American Idiot
Under the character-based direction of Vanessa Roman, Clare Boothe Luce's famous 1936 play is vicious and crazy, though it also seems like a comedy based on the epic story of religion itselfin this case with a lot of women trying to divine the will of unseen men, like gods in their lives. But with Erin Struckhoff as a completely realistic and sympathetic Mary Haines, and Sarah Polizzi as a bracingly driven Crystal Allen, it's also a hell of a lot of fun. There are perfect performances all around, thanks to director Roman and a great team behind the scenes.
Callie West is almost shockingly bitchy (and consistently hilarious) as Sylvia Fowler, while generally remaining within the constraints of 1930s mannersmanners which are frequently set aside like a pair of gloves or bothersome earrings. She and Ms. Polizzi are the biggest mullahs in this mysterious Church of Men where all blessings (and curses) come down from the (sex-driven) wills of men. Inevitably, Sylvia and Crystal's "expertise" also makes them the biggest know-it-alls, and the cruelest enforcers.
Ms. Polizzi, as "the other woman" (Joan Crawford in the 1939 movie), is a ball of fire: brazen and brassy, laughing hysterically one minute, and then as ruthless as the love-child of Carol Burnett and Mike Tyson in the next. She's almost like the Wicked Witch of the West on meth, in a brilliantly twisted comic performance.
But because men will (I'm told) say or do almost anything to get what we want, we apparently give off lots of conflicting signals to our quarry. So, for as many different stories as men like to tell, there are just as many denominations of male-worshippers represented on stage here. And each of these women probably has her own entirely unique but well-founded red-letter edition "bible" to legitimize an appropriate feminine response to our clumsy machinations. Though, in fact, most of these women seem pretty agnostic most of the time.
Kay Love is purely authentic as the sadder-but-wiser mother of Mary Haines (Ms. Love was splendid in the younger role herself, about 12 years ago), and Tessa O'Bryan is genuine and heartbreaking as "Little Mary." Indeed, there is so much naturalism on stage, it gives Ms. West and Ms. Polizzi every kind of artistic license to be utterly mad.
Every performance, even of the swan-like models, seems 100% stylish and true, though of course, pretense gives way to prurience every 30-60 seconds. It turns out the role of Miriam Ahrens is perfect for color-blind casting, or at least Talichia Noah makes it so, leading up to that great cat-fight in Reno. And Angela Fink throws "The Method" right into the toilet, giving us a great comic performance as the Countess De Lage, with all her ridiculous stories of past marriages and heartbreaks that she wouldn't trade for all the world. She's unapologetically the "Bubbles DeVere" of the piece.
Gabi Maul is sleek and wise and waspish as Mary's friend the novelist, and eternal trooper Ann Egenriether is genuinely outstanding: both as a retail manager and as a world-weary maternity nurse. Lindsay Morrison-Jahr is terrific as the wisecracking Irish cook, and Lilian Claire Dodenhoff is very nice as the weepy maid. Pamela Geppert gives Marjorie Maine (as Lucy in both the original 1936 play, and the first movie too) a run for her money as the proprietress of a dude ranch in Nevada.
It's not yet "antique theater," but it's got all the stylized trappings of Restoration Comedyor any other long-gone eraso it's a good thing it can be updated with the kind of insanely modern, comic overtones brought by Ms. Polizzi and Ms. West, and with the perfect race-blind casting of the delightful Ms. Noah.
And though theology isn't how we usually think of The Women, in the end the bitchiest Pharisees are indeed overthrown; and the woman scorned as a martyr is utterly vindicated.
It must be Easter season already.
The sets are fairly minimal, though the costumes are generally as rich as chocolate mousse.
Through March 20, 2016, at the Washington University South Campus theater, 6501 Clayton Rd. (across from the Esquire movie theater). For more information visit www.placeseveryone.org.