‘The Women’ may be ancient, but they’re still vicious

Paris and Nicole would be so proud. That is, if they could endure a play of nearly three hours without popping out to film a quick sex tape and get knocked up. Feisty? You betcha. With The Women in residence for another month, the Cellar Theater may as well change its name to Catfight Central.

Clare Booth Luce’s 1930s satire can’t be called relevant, unless relevancy is determined by an in-the-works film remake starring Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes. Its sexual politics are musty these many decades later: The idea that when a woman is down on herself she can simply redecorate or get a new hairdo, but faced with the same feelings, her man has no outlet but infidelity (so just grin and bear it!), is nothing short of ridiculous by today’s standards. Considering the plethora of incurable diseases “just bearing it” can land you, I hope audience members won’t take the sentiment to heart.

So, yes, I question The Women as a play choice, but Frank Latson has no intention — at least I believe none — of telling us “This is how it is,” rather “This is how it was.” (We could watch the 1939 Joan Crawford film for that, but, admittedly, performing The Women is a great occasion to throw all San Antonio’s finest actresses onstage at once. No actors — not even in the background — are featured in the play.)

Eva Laporte is Mary Haines, a happy wife and mother who must suffer woman’s greatest tragedy (cough) — losing her man. And to whom but a blond shopgirl called Crystal Allen, played by Emily Spicer. That Haines’ girlfriends gossip and scheme more than any coven of bitches I’ve ever been privileged to be member of seems to be the real tragedy of the play, but then this is a satire about early 20th-century New York socialites. (A wittier interpretation of The Women might have traded the Big Apple’s ladies-about-town for contemporary bleached-out heiresses and pop stars.)

Ringleader of the bantering band is Sylvia Fowler (Anna Gangai), whose tittle-tattling upgrades Mary and her philandering husband’s situation (among others) to Threat Level: Divorce. Meanwhile, the group’s fringe-friend Nancy Blake (Ayn
Phillips, deadpanning it), a novelist, studies the whole scene, taking notes for what I can only assume becomes her next book, The Dead Women II.

It’s extraordinary to watch Eva Laporte, who so recently portrayed a small child in AtticRep’s Mr. Marmalade, do a fully convincing goody-goody motherly thing here. And Emily Spicer, who has always reminded this reviewer of Anjelica Huston, exudes the sexiness and power she so often brings to her roles, here cooing to Mr. Haines on the telephone, then reversing completely after slamming the receiver down when she nearly doesn’t get her way. (It may seem insignificant to some, but it is also worth noting that both actresses excel at one-sided phone conversations, a tricky feat of timing.)

The Women is set in Al Martinez’ gorgeous deco world of garish vases, round beds, and vintage advertisements. A short, wide cylinder positioned center stage multi-functions as a platform, a mattress, and even a bathtub. Rose Kennedy’s costumes are both appropriate and enviable, and Ricki Kushner’s sound design brings a salon to life in all of its blow-dried glory.

The play falters in the second act, once the divorcées have taken their party to Reno, but that is a fault of the writing mostly; the performance I think could have benefited from a clippier pace. The opening-night crowd didn’t seem to notice, though, and, antiquated sexual politics aside, The Women looks like a hit. Or is that a scratch?



The Women
8pm Fri & Sat,
through Dec 16
San Pedro Playhouse
800 West Ashby
(210) 733-77258