Tough Broads

Soap opera: Kristen Johnston and Jennifer Tilly in The Women.Photo: Joan Marcus

Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women is the kind of play that could have been written in collaboration by Liz Smith and Rex Reed if they were wittier and better writers. Indeed, persistent rumor has it that Luce had a silent partner, the team of Kaufman and Hart, who may have contributed some finishing touches. In any case, the play is like a protracted, bitchily clever gossip column, full of biting misogyny that would not pass today’s political-correctness test even if written by a woman.

On the other hand, no one today would share Brooks Atkinson’s 1936 view of The Women as “stingingly detailed pictures of the most odious harpies ever collected in one play,” though one might agree with Ethan Mordden about its using the blast of the shotgun “when the scalpel of wit might have revealed an idea.” But ideas are not what the audience I saw the Roundabout revival with wanted: The coarser the jokes or the performances, the louder the laughter.

Well, funny lines and situations abound, and Scott Elliott, the director, makes the most of them. He may force things a bit, as when he allows Kristen Johnston, playing the role immortalized by Roz Russell in the movie version, to not so much go as fly over the top. Even so, she does get her laughs, as do several others, notably Mary Louise Wilson and Lynn Collins in the most skillful performances. Disappointing is the good Cynthia Nixon as the heroine, Mary, with a shrillness of voice I don’t recall from her ever before. There is nice work in several supporting parts, although not from the poseurish Adina Porter as a nurse, and the excessively child-actress-cute Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Little Mary. And as the scheming Crystal, Jennifer Tilly is regrettably more crass than sexy.

But excess proves irresistible in Isaac Mizrahi’s dizzying costumes, which often seem to wear their actresses rather than vice versa. I can just imagine that champion of lush costuming, William Ivey Long, eating his heart out. Not to be faulted are the highly architectonic, whimsically protean sets of Derek McLane, and the tongue-in-cheek lighting of Brian MacDevitt. When these two team up, as they often (but for me not often enough) do, stagecraft becomes witchcraft. Wherever the play’s invention flags, the designers’ imaginations blithely cover it up.

From Elaine Stritch’s one-woman show of song-studded reminiscences, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, “constructed” by John Lahr and “reconstructed” by the lady herself, we get in equal measure astringent wit, unsparing self-ribbing, and unabashed sentiment. If the word ageless did not already exist, it would have to be coined for this veteran entertainer. Her material is good, but her puckish delivery even better. She flaunts the most cunningly calculated spontaneity, the most dazzlingly mimed extemporizing I have ever experienced. The least rehearsed-appearing gesture, the most unpremeditated-sounding inflection, even the quasi-impromptu eyeball-rolling, is sheer artifice, but its semblance of springing forth fresh-minted is consummate art. No doubt, George C. Wolfe also contributed something with his staging, although I have my doubts about punctuating transitions with the lugging and repositioning of a rather heavy-looking chair, the show’s only prop. It does, however, earn its keep when Stritch sits on it and assumes an infinite variety of comic, dramatic, or touching positions.

Stritch’s singing, like her speech, comprises more pauses than Pinter ever dreamed of, but at the limit of our endurance the next phrase pops up or floats out. It is, like Harvard’s glass flowers, more real than the real thing, and delivered with a sense of humor that permeates the woman’s entire body. The songs are supported by Jonathan Tunick’s masterly orchestrations, and we get a concert, a confession, and supreme con-manship in an indissoluble package. Though many in the audience applaud and laugh in hysterical frenzy, Stritch’s comedy deserves better than that: It is based on subtle timing, inspired syncopation, subversive innuendo, and a flow of cocky or cockeyed comedy to be savored unfrenetically. Try not to let the camp followers spoil your fun.

John Patrick Shanley has directed yet another of his many plays, Where’s My Money? Not, alas, where his mouth is; the money, or pay dirt, or masterwork still eludes him. Shanley is one of our most frustrating playwrights and screenwriters: Though he is a natural-born dramatist, his biggest hit was a film, Moonstruck (which, however, doesn’t mean that he is not responsible for some deservedly obscure movies – anyone remember Five Corners?). To put it succinctly, Shanley has seldom written anything wholly devoid of interest or totally on the mark. The difficult final stage of his journey, from spotty to spot-on, has yet to be traversed.

Although Where’s My Money? has a carefully excogitated circular structure, whereby its beginning manages to bite its tail, its way of getting there is haphazard and halting, its often windy dialogue a poor antimacassar for its spindly furnishings. To the extent it is about anything, it concerns the precariousness of male-female relationships, whether marital or extramarital, and even when – if I read it correctly – one partner is already six feet under.

This brings me to the play’s most opportunistic aspect: ghosts, of which it has one male, one female. Now, ghosts are, along with angels, the most annoying gimmicks of our hapless era. They were tolerable in olden days, when meant to give pleasurable goose bumps, like a bracingly cold shower. But current ghosts, like the equally sappy angels, are meant to entertain and sustain us – to be something no self-respecting classical ghosts would have had truck with: feel-good ghosts, reassuring us about an eleemosynary hereafter we can spend helping survivors we loved find their earthly salvation. To Shanley’s credit, his ghosts are still scary – but, unlike those of, say, Banquo and Hamlet Sr., they have minimal moral function.

In some of his previous works, Shanley, a commendable savorer of female pulchritude, found devices – an onstage bath, posing as a nude model – for showing off his alluring actresses in the altogether. The actresses in this show remain clothed (albeit scantily, in one case), but Florencia Lozano is both pretty and talented, as is David Deblinger (talented, not pretty). What Shanley could someday achieve is prefigured in brilliant snatches, such as this exhortation from one lawyer to another: “They are debating whether it is right or wrong to bomb the Taliban during Ramadan. Maybe we shouldn’t have bombed the Nazis during Oktoberfest … That’s for chumps. That’s for clients.” More of this kind of dialogue just might prevent trips to the box office by audience members muttering the play’s insistent title.

The Women
Broadway revival of the play by Clare Boothe Luce, staged by Scott Elliott.
Elaine Stritch at Liberty
Written by John Lahr and Elaine Stritch; staged by George C. Wolfe.
Where’s My Money?
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley.

Tough Broads