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Everyone has heard the joke about the difference between a woman and a pit-bull: the pit-bull doesn't wear lipstick. It's an awful, chauvinistic joke that I would be particularly careful telling to the titular group of Clare Boothe Luce's The Women, now in a riotously funny production at UNC School of the Arts. Those girls don't just wear lipstick, their
claws nails bear Jungle Red polish to, as one of them puts it, "tear your friends apart."
Luce's women attack more like cats than rabid dogs, igniting a hunger in those of us watching to see a catfight. While that does come later in the play, in this 1930s upper-class Manhattan world, most battles are fought with more "ladylike" behavior. It is easier to destroy someone's life with words than with a punch.
It is no wonder that, when the play was revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York some years ago, drag queens wrote to director Scott Ellis begging him to cast them. Who wouldn't want to star in a play where every line is a sharp, acidic jab at another person?
The story, immortalized in a star-studded 1939 movie starring Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford, follows a group of high society friends (all married except for the straight-laced journalist whose career comes before any man) as they begin a rumor about Mary, the most maternal of the group. Over a game of bridge, Sylvia (the incomparably funny Savannah-Lee Mumford, arguably UNCSA's own Joan Rivers) dishes and, before you know what's true or not, the rumor spreads to the gossip columns. This is the age of Louella Parsons, so before long all of New York knows that Mary's husband, Steven, is cheating on her with a blonde floozy. For her own betterment and the sake of her children, Mary files for divorce, sending her life into a downward spiral. Meanwhile, rumors begin about the other women's husbands and Steven's mistress, sending the women into a state of unified revelation: men are pigs.
While The Women does not feature any onstage male characters, men are central to the play. They are who the women look to for security and love, immediately thereafter saying how a man is not needed for those things. Mary's mother, a widow, comforts her daughter post-divorce by saying, "Living alone is actually better: you can eat what you want, you can go wherever you want." That is, she doesn't mention, with the money your ex-husband has given you.
The feminist themes in Luce's play are both central to the time period and oddly modern. Luce seems to be on the verge of writing about the kind of female independence in a male-dominated society that critics like Susan Sontag would later fully endorse. However, because of the societal constraints of the day, the women of Luce's world aren't as radical as their opinions and wishes make them seem. Ironically, Luce's three-dimensional women lead two-dimensional lives as mother and homemaker in a male-dominated society. Perhaps the women would be better without the men to hold them back. Think of the things they could do if they weren't so constrained: become scientists or even run for president of the United States.
While these themes may seem dated, and probably infuriate some, the play feels exceptionally modern and I had to remind myself the entire time that the play was written in 1936 not 2016.
Director Giovanni Sardelli's production is filled with rich characterizations and among the finest comedic timing seen from a student production in recent memory. The college-age actors convincingly portrayed older characters and brought youthfulness to the play's childishly behaving adults.
Emily DeForest transformed the victimized Mary from a dependent, maternal figure into an independent Carrie Bradshaw-esque lady. The actors playing Mary's friends each stole their respective featured scenes, especially Beth Hawkes as Mary's mother, Kelsey Buterbaugh as Steven's mistress Crystal, and Elizabeth Harper McCarthy as the four-time-divorced Countess de Lage. When the whole cast came together, there was a fireworks display of crackling wit and bitchy love for one another that seemed to transcend the world of the play. (There was even a moment when one of the actors flubbed a line and the other girls could be seen holding back a laugh.) There was a genuine sense of unity with this cast that was infectiously heartwarming.
Jamie DeHay's turntable set brought gasps to many audience members, including myself, for its creative use of space, transporting us, with the help of Ryan O'Mara's lights and the Vogue-like costumes by Michelle Pflug, into the bygone days of yesteryear.
Giovanni Sardelli's handling of the script was all in the details: the timing of the dressing-store girls eavesdropping on a fight, the hug a daughter gave her mother who then gave a hug to her own mother. The benefit of Sardelli's direction shows in the intimacy, subtlety, and downright hilariousness of the play. And though the actors had trouble finding their footing at the start, perhaps needing a cosmo or two in them, the fun of the production blossomed quickly as we observed actors embodying these sharp-clawed women.
It is refreshing to see a comedy of this era presented straight – no exaggerations or political statements on how women are treated poorly by men. Come time for the climax of the play, we see that men maybe aren't the only ones to distrust. Women have claws – and aren't afraid to use them on you or each other.
The Women continues through Sunday, February 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.