Janie Dee, comic royalty on English stages, applies her comedic chops to the title role in “Linda,” a feisty feminist play by Penelope Skinner that originated at London’s Royal Court Theater. Well-cast and briskly directed by Manhattan Theater Club artistic director Lynne Meadow, the production is a bittersweet rallying cry for women who become invisible — and totally irrelevant — when they turn 50.
As played by the vivacious Dee, Linda is on top of her game as a senior advertising executive when she makes her pitch for a dramatic new marketing campaign for the Swan Beauty Corporation. Reaching out to the forgotten women over 50 years of age, she proposes launching a product line that taps directly into this neglected demographic.
Skinner’s opening monologue for Linda is a grimly funny compendium of all the indignities suffered by women of a certain age, from losing one’s sex appeal to disappearing from the stages and screens of popular culture. Once a woman becomes socially irrelevant, she also becomes invisible. “Let’s make these invisible women feel seen again,” Linda declares. “Let’s say to them: Ladies? We know you’re out there! We see you! You exist!”
But having only recently aged into this category of untouchables herself, Linda fails to grasp the scope and force of ageism. “I’m not just pitching an ad,” she blindly crows. “I’m starting a revolution!”
It’s just as well that she toots her own horn, because no one in her charmingly eccentric household is paying the least attention. Husband Neil (a smoothly polished performance from Donald Sage Mackay) is busy with work and a fun-time pickup band. Her 15-year-old daughter Bridget, played by smart and sassy Molly Ranson, is agonizing over a monologue for English class. (Must it be Ophelia? As long as she has to choose from this “whine-fest for boys,” why not go for Hamlet?) And her 25-year-old daughter Alice (Jennifer Ikeda, delicious) is going through some behavioral phase that entails wearing a talismanic skunk costume and never leaving the house.
Dee conveys such genuine delight in Linda’s professional achievements (“I’ve done it! By god, Linda Wilde has done it! I’ve made it to the top!”) that her domestic lapses, while downright dangerous, seem forgivable. But the scribe is not only heartlessly funny, she’s also bluntly realistic, so it’s obvious that the moment of reckoning is coming for Linda.
Sure enough, Linda’s sandcastle comes tumbling down, and Dee’s empathic support (along with Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s power suits) are all that’s holding her up. But Skinner is merciless. At work, Linda is supplanted by Amy (Molly Griggs, terrifyingly beautiful), a shrewd young thing with shark’s blood. “I will honor your legacy,” she tells Linda, after taking over her office. (The handsomely detailed revolving sets are the work of Walt Spangler.) In the marital bed, she’s displaced by Stevie (Meghann Fahy, ditto), who is half her age and pities her for being “insanely menopausal.”
But Linda is made of sterner stuff. “I will not disappear!” she vows. And while the playwright’s second-act strategy for getting Linda’s mojo back is seriously flawed, the final scene is one fine piece of writing.