Claire Boothe Luce’s 1936 comedy of manners, The Women, is something of an oddity. A deeply conservative piece even in its own time, it is today positively archaic; however, the New Theatre has dived headlong into this production and the result is an entertaining and fun filled romp from yesteryear.
Mrs Mary Haines has it all: two children and successful New York broker for a husband, a stylish wardrobe, lavish house and a circle of close friends. But this all gets turned on its head when she learns that her husband is having an affair with a trashy, albeit attractive, shop girl. This leads to divorce, but Mary isn’t about to go down without a fight. Although the piece is a bit sprawling at two hours length, Luce has a keen eye for situational comedy and her wit is razor sharp.
Mary Haines, our protagonist, is soundly played by Helen Stuart, though, compared to some of the roles, the character is less exciting. This is by no means the fault of Stuart, who dutifully shows Mary to be a naïve romantic, and the one who suffers for it. Stuart paints Mary with a noble brush, and manages (as much as the piece will allow) to downplay her ‘doormat tendencies’ to suit a more modern audience. Sylvie, by contrast, is a majestic feline. Jess Loudon gives the role it’s much needed punch, which allows this Sylvia to be the most conniving of the women. We certainly enjoy her thinly veiled backhanded compliments, but Loudon also laces the role with doses of insecurity that hide just beneath the surface. Overall, Loudon was fun, relaxed and knew how to deliver a line – truly one of the evening’s standouts.
Alexandra Plim plays Nancy, a progressive feminist author, who is fitted with pants, a blouse and a blunt disposition, which Plim pulls off with great aplomb. Emma Louise was hysterical as Edith, a blatantly unaware socialite, who, whilst constantly pregnant, is wise to the realities of marriage. Louise was confident in the role and almost stole the show with her sharp, barrel mouth deliveries. As Crystal Allen, the mistress of Stephen Haines, Eleanor Ryan was aesthetically perfect. Her cold emotional exploitations are hard to manage as this is essentially a two dimensional femme fatale, but Ryan made the most of what she had. Joy Miller was deliciously cougar-esque as Flora, the Countess de Lage. Described as somewhere between forty and death, Miller’s Flora was outrageously decadent yet secretly lonely; a generally exuberant performance. Special mention must be made of Jade Potts, who plays Little Mary, Mary’s daughter, who delighted on every entrance. So too must we mention Sandy Velini as Maggie, Mary’s cook, Annie Schofield as Olga the chatty manicurist and Nell Nakkan as the irritable gym instructor for putting in some wonderfully comic supporting performances.
The Women is a play that doesn’t bear thinking too hard about. Thematically it is very much out of sync with how we would think about marriage today, and Luce paints society with a very broad brush. All men are cheats, but women have to accept it their inherent nature, since the alternative of being without a husband is much worse. If you are able to set aside these jarring aspects and just go along for the ride, you should have a good time. And to the credit of director, Deborah Jones, this production throws itself at the text. It is performed with such gusto that it won’t be until well after the final bows that you’ll start to question the social position of the piece.
The New Theatre has put together another fine production; it’s rare for them to disappoint, and this is no exception. The Women is playing until the 12th of September. For more information see: http://newtheatre.org.au/the-women/