SAN DIEGO--Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 "The Women," with its soapy plot and unrelenting portrayal of upper-crust bitchiness, hardly seems like a play for now. Or especially for NOW. Not one of its characters, all females, would be a National Organization for Women role model.

SAN DIEGO–Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 “The Women,” with its soapy plot and unrelenting portrayal of upper-crust bitchiness, hardly seems like a play for now. Or especially for NOW. Not one of its characters, all females, would be a National Organization for Women role model.

Ah, but under the skilled, innovative direction of Anne Bogart, Luce’s creaky vehicle becomes a sleek and sporty model, rippingly satirizing a lifestyle and attitudes that remain more prevalent than enlightened people would like to believe.

Luce’s script spotlights those women who have high rank– through their men–but low power. They exist, seemingly privileged but basically unable to control anything outside their homes. And so they turn to one another — to tear apart.

They can’t build, but they can destroy. Accordingly, they spend their idle hours–and most of their hours are idle–gossiping and conjecturing about one another’s loves and affairs. If there’s smoke, they create the fire, usually a four-alarmer, and everybody gets burned.

Central is Mary Haines, blissfully ignorant of her husband’s mistress until made aware by the machinations of her so-called friends. The scandal gets so thick that Mary heads for Reno for an unwanted divorce. Hubby marries mistress Crystal, and everyone’s unhappy. Then Mary learns about Crystal’s hanky-panky, and plays the manipulation game well enough to win back her man.

Betrayal and deceit. Lies and innuendo. And all to impress and win men, even though that unseen gender gets discussed mostly in terms of contempt.

Luce tells a story that ranges from deeply misogynistic to downright misanthropic. And its message of “get and keep a man, even a creep, by any means possible” doesn’t sit well in the age of Thelma and Louise.

Bogart, however, makes it easily palatable by staging it as a high-class burlesque, borrowing from the theatrical obviousness of Brecht and the absurdity of Beckett. All the characters engage in exaggerated acting, artistic posing and almost-constant movement that ranges from choreographed near-dancing to athletic bends and bounces.

It’s clear from the opening scene — a bridge game frantic with motion and chattery, loud, overlapping conversation–that this is not intended to be a realistic study of womanhood.

That doesn’t mean, however, that this production lacks seriousness. Besides jabbing at the self-absorption of these women– props and set prominently feature mirrors — Bogart includes in most scenes an ignored working-class woman cleaning, polishing or scrubbing.

About the only caveat is that Bogart’s talent for stage movement and positioning, which turns most scenes into visual feasts, sometimes creates effects that overwhelm the text and Luce’s own lampooning thrusts. One not lost, fortunately, is Crystal’s experienced admonition not to marry a man who’s “deserted a good woman.”

One undeniable plus for this production is that it provides a cornucopia of good roles for women. Sixteen of them get to play 42 characters, and all–a multicultural mix that includes elfin adult Sandie Church as Mary’s child–fit well in Bogart’s mosaic.

Notable among the ensemble are Darla Cash, who takes Mary from sweetness to nastiness; Regina Byrd Smith, as the vicious-tongued plot stirrer; Karenjune Sanchez, as an exuberant, limber naif in the group; Linda Libby as a brassy, perpetually pregnant wife who’s accused of being “Catholic or careless”;

Susan Gelman, in an assortment of earthy roles; and Eleni Kelakos, who makes a gorgeous temptress as Crystal and beautifully sings some of the period tunes woven into this production, accompanied by Marta Zekan’s onstage piano.

Even more pertinent to the period is the incredible array of lush, colorful costumes assembled by Cathy Meacham Hunt. Even if the characters stood still, the dresses, furs, gowns, lingerie and hairstyles would make this show a treat for the eyes.

Victoria Petrovich’s set is not so successful. It’s streamlined and functional, with a black stage area angled between shiny walls extending back like points intersecting in the horizon. And the walls have huge mirrored doors that, when open, reflect the cast in backstage poses.

The effect, with Brenda Berry’s serviceable lighting, aids Bogart’s remember-this-is-theater plan, but it also comes off as futuristic, a contradictory impression about an era and an attitude that one can only hope are fading.

Show runs through Saturday.

The Women

(Lyceum Stage; 550 seats; $ 22 top)

Production

Two-act drama by Clare Boothe Luce, produced by San Diego Repertory Theater. Director, Anne Bogart; musical director and arrangements, Michael Roth.

Creative

Scenic design, Victoria Petrovich; costume design, Cathy Meacham Hunt; lighting, Brenda Berry. Reviewed June 3, 1992.

Cast

Cast: Darla Cash, Roxane Carrasco, Linda Castro, Barbara Chisholm, Sandie Church, Susan Gelman, Eleni Kelakos, Dochia Knox, Linda Libby, Sandra L'Italien, Susy McWilliams, Amber Rae, Lorna Raver, Karenjune Sanchez, Joan Schirle, Regina Byrd Smith.
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