The Manhattan socialites of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women go less the way of the dodo than the way of the divorce court. And in Scott Edmiston’s deliciously deliberate staging for SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through October 21), the iconic if seldom revived 1936 satiric drama is painted Jungle Red (its favored nail polish), with a strong dose of the blues. The production doesn’t really make a case for the play as an underappreciated American masterpiece, but it is nonetheless a four-carat hoot with a heart — not to mention bon mots toxic enough to make paint peel. And the audience, familiar with the work from the 1939 film, roots as if it were at a baseball game, with marital idealist Mary Haines the Red Sox and gorgeous golddigger Crystal Allen the Yankees.
The plot is pure soap: Mary, smug about her perfect life and surrounded by distaff barracudas masquerading as friends, discovers that her adored husband (one of the many men who never appear) is cheating with a “shop girl” who is also a “man-trap.” Pride goeth before a divorce — enough marital rending, eventually, to turn Reno into a dude-ranch summer camp for Mary and compatriots — and then the plot must really gust and twist to put things right. Edmiston holds onto the tent poles for the first act, balancing poignance with camp, but not even he can keep the second from exploding into Dynasty ahead of its time.
According to the program, Luce’s play “has been hailed as pre-feminist and condemned as misogynistic” — both of which assessments take the moralistic melodrama with the withering one-liners too seriously. Luce was a woman ahead of her time but nonetheless treading its social waters, and she reports from the surf with more cattiness than polemic. The authorial stand-in, acerb writer Nancy Blake, pronounces on the lives of her well-married friends with a sardonic wit, and SpeakEasy deploys Nancy E. Carroll, the queen of drop-dead deadpan, in the role. Carroll also supplies a piquant touch, leading off a first-act finale that eventually has the ensemble of 20 crooning Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor” (from 1936).
The size of the cast means that almost every actress in Boston gets to gad about here in Gail Astrid Buckley’s heroic parade of costumes, and most acquit themselves well. Anne Gottlieb balances the weepy and Henry V elements in Mary, and Maureen Keiller is aptly lethal as two-faced Sylvia. Ellen Colton is very funny as a blabbing manicurist and cowboy cook, as is Kerry A. Dowling’s fluty baby machine, Edith, blowing smoke all over her newborn. As opportunistic Crystal, Georgia Lyman (whom I should say I have known since birth) looks like a long, lean million bucks attached to Jean Harlow’s head and is more buyable as a brittle perfume saleswoman than Joan Crawford was. (Surely Crawford would own the fragrance company.) As for the show itself, like chocolate, it’s toothsome if non-nutritious. And who knows, maybe there are antioxidants.