If Noel Coward returned from the dead with his plotting skills impaired but his wit intact, his take on contemporary feminism might resemble “The Female of the Species.” Australian scribe Joanna Murray-Smith’s farce was inspired by a real-life 2000 hostage incident in which a deranged student assaulted “The Female Eunuch” author Germaine Greer. The Geffen Playhouse U.S. premiere (Americanized for the occasion) requires a willing suspension of both disbelief and impatience with its rickety structure. The rewards are an assured, persuasive star turn by Annette Bening, many wickedly funny lines and some pinpricks at public intellectuals’ private lives.
Murray-Smith’s alliterative feminist guru, Margot Mason (Bening), is a direct descendant of Coward’s vain, extravagant thespian Garry Essendine in “Present Laughter.” She’s modest to a fault (“Me, a legend? Absolument not!”) but strikes like a cobra when her eminence is questioned.
No one questions the author of “The Cerebral Vagina” and “Madame Ovary” more than revolver-wielding Molly (Merritt Wever), driven mad by Margot’s lofty, capriciously contradictory advice to modern women. In the young girl’s view, that influence has ruined two generations and merits death.
Funny stuff, eh? Not to fret, the threat perceptibly lessens at the arrival of the Mason retinue with new axes to grind: the daughter (Mireille Enos) bewailing her housewife-and-mother career choice and Margot’s indifference; the son-in-law (David Arquette) sensitive to his lady’s needs but not to the English language; a real-man taxi driver (Josh Stamberg) who tried to eat quiche but lost his wife anyway; and Margot’s publisher (Julian Sands), whose only interest in the feminine mystique is how many bestsellers he can spin off from it.
Helmer Randall Arney gets things off to a snappy start, but is powerless to maintain the farce’s essential stakes as Murray-Smith trots in each of these caricatures to say their piece before stepping to the sidelines — like turns in a post-post-feminist variety show. The enterprise also runs out of steam midway because the females of the species, who all enter before any of the men, get the best jokes and the strongest acting.
Enos, shuffling around in PJs and a fluffy robe as if she’d wandered in from breakfast (one of David Kay Mickelsen’s many witty comments in his costume designs), is both hilarious and touching as she enumerates her Mommy duties and bewails her inability to find pleasure in her man. With similar skill, Wever believably executes Molly’s transition from adoring fan to vengeful virago, maintaining a comic temperament even through genuine grief.
For her part, Bening seems to take physical relish in confronting these heirs to her intellectual legacy (“I do adore the cynicism of youth, it’s so crisp”). She strides about Takeshi Kata’s elegant yet lived-in set in imperious mode, issuing towering pronouncements (“Listen to me! Madame Wordplay!”) and heedless to her internal inconsistencies.
This is the force of nature one hoped to find from Bening in last year’s too-cerebral “Medea” at UCLA Live, and the evening takes a soggy turn when she’s handcuffed to a desk, her presence reduced to a tiny, barely-seen head as the men arrive.
Sands and Arquette don’t know what to do with their hands or their ambiguously written roles, while the more confident Stamberg is forced to stomp through stock “Defending the Caveman” shtick. All three race through their lines like rushed improv actors, and Murray-Smith lets them opine and bicker their way to the unsatisfying finale. (Which differs from the published edition’s equally unsatisfying wrap-up. Ending a farce is hard.)
If “The Female of the Species” lacks shape, it may be on to something in its staggering pile of quips, queries and complaints pertaining to contemporary sexual politics. Maybe the last 60 years’ flood of clashing theories and self-help agendas has indeed left women and men equally confused in their search for personal identity and fulfillment.
Always ready to deny her culpability in that confusion, Margot finally comes to a dawning realization: “I can forgive. I can let go. And accept the quaint fallibility of human nature with grace and … elegance and tolerance.” Of course it’s shallow, a Cowardian swipe at her inferiors. But the way Bening plays this epiphany, you get a sense that redemption even for eggheads may be possible after all.