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The season’s feminine mystique

Gotham scene buzzes, as female perfs take center stage and boost biz to boot

NEW YORK — When Lisa Kron’s play “Well” opens March 30 at the Longacre Theater, the intimate mother-daughter drama will be the rare Broadway play to lack brand-name talent. But it follows one of this season’s most remarkable trends: The show features strong roles for actresses no longer in the ingenue set.

Even more than the roles, it’s the commanding performances that have been galvanizing attention, ranging from Christine Ebersole as an eccentric Bouvier in “Grey Gardens” to Kate Valk as a black male autocrat in the Wooster Group’s “The Emperor Jones” to Sarah Jones depicting a whole catalog of ethnically mixed outsiders in her one-woman Broadway hit “Bridge & Tunnel.”

Every New York season features memorable perfs, both male and female. Last year’s notables included Cherry Jones in “Doubt,” Kathleen Turner in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Victoria Clark in “The Light in the Piazza.”

But this season, some harmonic convergence has brought more than a dozen buzzed-about, knockout femme performances. They have kept the box office humming — even though few of them are major-name draws.

Sure, theater has always been more receptive than film and TV, And, yes, legit demographics are dominated by over-40 women.

Even so, this season is remarkable. Carole Rothman, a.d. of Second Stage Theater, notes the increased attention for older actresses and chuckles, “I don’t think that’s normal, and I have no idea why it’s happening.”

She says she felt lucky to produce Julie White’s highly praised turn in “The Little Dog Laughed” and then immediately follow with “Show People,” a Paul Weitz comedy that opens April 6 with a lead for Debra Monk.

They join such Broadway notables as Kron’s co-starin “Well,” Jane Houdyshell; Judy Kaye in “Souvenir”; Patti LuPone in “Sweeney Todd”; Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly in “Rabbit Hole”; Frances Sternhagen in “Seascape”; and the brace of ladies in “The Color Purple.”

Off Broadway has been even more populated by exceptional portraits of unconventional women, including Mia Farrow in “Fran’s Bed,” Kristine Nielsen in “Miss Witherspoon,” Lois Smith in “The Trip to Bountiful,” Dianne Wiest in “Third” and White in “The Little Dog Laughed.”

Conventional rationales for this renaissance don’t seem to stick.

Take the notion of star power. Aside from the occasional Cate (Blanchett in “Hedda Gabler”), Jennifer (Jason Leigh in “Abigail’s Party”) or Julia (Roberts in the upcoming “Three Days of Rain”), celebrities are toplining few of this season’s breakouts.

Mostly there’s been a sense of happy discovery or long-deserved triumph as, say, stage veteran Smith wows critics and audiences in “Bountiful” or West End staple Maria Friedman makes an impressive Broadway bow in “The Woman in White.”

Nor can these ladies’ successes all be attributed to groundbreaking productions or material. Several thesps have actually been admired in spite of what surrounds them. Jan Maxwell, certainly, was praised far above the general assessment of this month’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” revival, and Jill Clayburgh drew appreciative nods in two shows that otherwise were broadly panned, “The Naked Girl on the Appian Way” and “Barefoot in the Park.”

Maybe, then, this phenomenon’s only universal factor is New York’s supply of talent. Manhattan Theater Club a.d. Lynne Meadow thinks so, saying that theater is a hospitable place for artists who are underused in the youth-centered worlds of film and television.

“Great acting doesn’t stop when you turn 40,” Meadow notes. “This is not a sport, where you lose your skill as you get older.”

Ageism in Hollywood is hardly new, but this year in Gotham especially, theater reminds us what’s gained when seasoned pros get to strut their stuff.

Elizabeth I. McCann, a lead producer on “Well,” says that performers need to see the greats at work if they want to become great themselves. “The lessons pass down to younger actors,” she explains. “And that’s the most important part of it to me.”

For many producers, of course, impressive returns are just as important as impressive work, and this season’s women have kept box offices busy.

Consider “Rabbit Hole”: As a play, it has been equally loved and hated by critics, but the universal acclaim for Nixon and Daly has pushed the show to repeated extensions and 90%-capacity business.

Even more obviously, Ebersole’s work in “Grey Gardens” has been dubbed some kind of acting miracle — the kind of theater perf that comes along once in a decade and will be talked about for decades more — and that buzz helped the esoteric tuner sell out its entire run through two extensions despite mixed notices for the show itself.

A similar enthusiasm for Jones’ perf in “Bridge & Tunnel” propelled what was a highly risky prospect for Broadway to recoup earlier this month; and without the ardor heaped on Smith and White, “Bountiful” and “Little Dog” wouldn’t have been circling for Rialto berths of their own. (The former has since abandoned plans for a Broadway transfer, but “Little Dog” remains tipped to upgrade in the fall.)

There have been backfires — not even the raves for Kaye’s turn as tone-deaf dowager-diva Florence Foster Jenkins could save “Souvenir” from Broadway failure — but the overwhelming evidence is that auds are eager to embrace this influx of gifted actresses. The runaway success of femme-centric musical “The Color Purple” is another indicator.

It can’t hurt that middle-aged women are also regular ticket-buyers, though many of these titles are geared well outside that niche. Unlike film, which targets the 15-25-year age bracket as its key demographic, women in their 40s and 50s are among the most robust theatergoing constituents so it’s not entirely surprising that they want to see themselves represented onstage.

And since patrons, critics and artists seem equally willing to subscribe to this more mature brand of girl power, the abundance of great female parts and socko performances might even last long enough to become more than just a seasonal trend.