By Arnold Wayne Jones Staff Writer

Contemporary’s “‘The Women’ bristles with delightful wit

NOTHING LIKE A GRANDE DAME: Mary Haines (Fairchild, left) plots her next move with the help of some society ladies (Yancey, Diotalevi and Loncar).

Sarcasm drips from the lips of every character in “The Women,” Clare Boothe Luce’s astonishingly still-relevant 1936 play about New York society. The women in question are mostly the grande dames of the social elite who trade gossip and husbands as freely as bids in a game of contract bridge.

“The Women” is a classic both as a feminist tract and as an urbane, wordy screwball comedy, complete with catfights and razor wit. Remarkably, neither the plot nor the dialogue nor even the motivations seem dated. These ladies wisecrack about divorce, impotence, infidelity, gold-digging tramps, psychoanalysis has anything changed in 70 years? Be glad it hasn’t.

Mary Haines (Lisa Fairchild) coos lovingly about her husband, Steven, whom she praises as devoted. But behind her back, Mary’s clutch of friends whisper about how Steven is stepping out on her with Crystal (Kristen Blevins James), a shopgirl a Sak’s who’s happy to homewreck. When Mary finds out, she’s forced to deal with competing advice: Should she ignore the situation (and her pride), or ruin a marriage she thought was perfect?

This production wouldn’t work so well without director Susan Sargeant’s insanely tight pacing. She treats the dialogue like a power lawnmower that does its best if you just turn it on, open the throttle and let it cut down everything in its path. Sargeant realizes with a script like this, there are only two speeds available: fast or dead. And nothing dies here.

Certainly the cast rises to the occasion. Sylvia, the cattiest of the coven, is a social cockroach who takes any side that serves her, and Morgana Shaw is brilliant portraying her. Shaw is theatrical tofu, capable of taking on whatever quality she needs to make a part work. Here, she’s got that ’30s timbre down cold, speaking in a rapid, knowing and saucy clip.

Marisa Diotalevi, a charismatic comic actress, is almost unrecognizable here, dressed in her drab clothes and with her hair in a mousy-brown bun. What she lacks in flamboyance, she more than makes up for in the deliciousness of the lines she delivers. (Of all the cast members, she gets the most zingers.) “Practically nobody ever misses a clever woman,” she laments with a droll, Dorothy Parker-like facade.

Despite the overall success in casting, the one weak spot is Fairchild. She seems wrong for the part only insofar as being slightly off in most particulars. She’s slightly too old, slightly too dull, slightly too closed off and pinched. Her voice doesn’t carry the dialogue like Shaw’s does, and she doesn’t get the dithery moments that Laura Yancey, as the Countess de Lage, gets to enjoy.

The look of the production, and its fluidity, is without fault. Randel Wright is a genius of a set designer, effortlessly swapping out 12 different settings with art deco mirrors and a New York City skyline backdrop that shimmers like a gigantic Lite-Brite of backlit pointillism. Christina Dickson’s costumes are appropriately glamorous. They, and everyone else involved, evoke the mores of a bygone era while making subtle observations about today. It’s a great theatrical start for the new year.

Greenville Center for the Arts, 5601 Sears St. Through Feb. 12. Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $24. 214-828-0094.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of January 20, 2006.
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