Widely and unjustly dismissed as a self-hating misogynist screed, Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 “The Women” has found a director who prizes women and appreciates the play’s specific satirical aims. Darko Tresnjak, the Old Globe’s resident artistic director, has helmed an elegant, emotionally precise revival of a minor gem among American comedies of manners. And the clothes are as dazzling as the banter.
Luce intended not an indictment of her whole sex but “a clinical study of a more or less isolated group” — the super-idle matrons of Park Avenue (or Rodeo Drive) — “projected perhaps in bad temper, but in good faith.” On this research project Tresnjak is Luce’s able lab assistant, pegging all the bitchery and backbiting to recognizable psychology.
Contrary to the current movie remake’s conception of “Sex and the City” best buds, Luce pinpoints the makeshift nature of “friendships” built on society functions and bridge games, with a thin line separating air-kissing BFFs from mortal enemies.
Animating the production is their fundamental flaw: They’re perilously inattentive to their own situation while far too attentive to everyone else’s. By not minding the chaos in her own house, each of Luce’s distinctively conceived principals risks everything that matters — love, security, fulfillment.
None is more careless than Mary Haines (Kate Baldwin), who’s dreamily content in her fool’s paradise until financier husband Stephen runs off with scheming salesclerk Crystal (Kathleen McElfresh, with enough va va voom to render Stephen the envy of assembled audience males).
Though Luce called Mary “so stupid you hardly give a hoot,” Baldwin’s fresh and intelligent reading becomes Tresnjak’s anchor in a clear and empathetic progression from despair to Reno to resignation, thence to the climactic play for her ex — nails painted Jungle Red.
A superb troupe of representative society types drop by, notably Amy Hohn as endlessly fertile Edith, dropping a cigarette ash on her nursing newborn while dishing dirt; Amanda Kramer as tremulous newlywed Peggy; and a hilarious Ruth Williamson as the much-wed Countess who sees every dud hubby through rose-colored glasses: “Ah, l’amour!”
Brief but splendid turns come from the moral compasses: Linda Gehringer, all wry gravity as Mary’s mother; Amanda Naughton as a sociologist of female folly; and Nancy Anderson’s wisecracking divorcee. (Anderson also excels as a chanteuse of interstitial love songs in the course of the evening.)
But any “Women” will rise or fall on its Sylvia, the waspish confidante who makes her circle a coven while ignoring her own man’s roving eye. The peerless Heather Ayers possesses a crackling tongue (with an amusing hint of Katharine Hepburn) and studied grace, equally believable when defending a friend or inserting a stiletto.
Tresnjak’s direction isn’t impeccable. The minor characters’ vulgar caricature and cartoon voices evoke hints of class snobbery. Blair Ross is effective as a nurse telling off the complaining Edith (she of the errant ash), but she’d be stronger still if her reading were simpler and less cluttered.
But who can quibble when a rediscovered play moves along so briskly on point? David P. Gordon’s rotating Art Deco palace (transformed into Reno with only Navajo drapes and log furniture) brilliantly sets off Anna R. Oliver’s thrilling clothes, so perfectly chosen and worn they can’t be called costumes.
And though Matt Richards’ lights properly illuminate Luce’s public spaces — a fitting room, powder room, hair salon — they tighten at each scene’s end to a special on a significant character or group, always reminding us of the needy human beings beneath all that fabric and facade.