The Women at ACT is full of secret pleasures

Do you like to see rich and jerky and beautiful women get their comeuppances? It's the formula of a great American pop-culture tradition, brought stylishly to a stage near you.
Crosscut archive image.

Suzanne Bouchard in <i>The Women</i>. (Chris Bennion)

Do you like to see rich and jerky and beautiful women get their comeuppances? It's the formula of a great American pop-culture tradition, brought stylishly to a stage near you.

Overheard as I filed out of ACT after opening night of its revival of the Clare Boothe Luce 1930s classic, The Women:

"I'm so glad I'm gay!"

Was that because, in her experience, gay women don't make nasty quips like the ones we were treated to in the play? (And it was a treat!) Because gay relationships aren't the mine for envy and backstabbing that straight relationships supposedly are? Because society gives men and women the same opportunities, thereby forcing an egalitarian nature on gay relationships that straight couples have to work harder for?

But not just gay theater-goers had reason to be glad. I'll bet my cotton tights and my Danskos that every woman walked out of ACT that night thinking, "I'm glad I'm still young/not young anymore/single/married/divorced!" That's because The Women is a feelgood play in a skimpy devil costume. It's part of a great American pop-culture tradition: the humiliation of women who are beautiful and, therefore, powerful.

My grandmother was an insatiable gossip. As the personal lives of her aging friends became less interesting, the grand dames of As The World Turns replaced them. When I was a kid, my mother had a distaste for rich women, yet she religiously watched Dallas, that nighttime soap known 'round the world for its portrayal of oil-rich Texas in the 1980s. In middle school, I got hooked on the megabuck melodrama The Young and the Restless in the summertime, while I avoided the Capitol Hill and Wedgwood girls at school.

Beauty is power, and it's uniquely satisfying to see that power undermined.

So it is in ACT's production of The Women, smartly directed by Warner Shook and starring many great local women actors. Mary Haines is played by the thin and beautiful Suzanne Bouchard. Mary is rich, as are all her jerky friends. She's insecure, because she knows her beauty snagged her husband, and that beauty is just starting to fade. Then she's devastated to learn her husband is cheating with a perfume counter girl – the sexy and scrappy Crystal Allen, played with blond ambition by Jennifer Lyon. Everyone but Mary's mother tells Mary she's best off without him. In the end, Mary follows her heart – and her mother's desires – to fight a battle of wits and guts and get her man back from Crystal's clutches.

The play wouldn't be nearly so fun if Mary weren't so willowy and gorgeous, nor if Crystal weren't so curvy in her high-slitted gowns. Just like in a beauty pageant, the costumes of the play are half the fun. In the final showdown scene, Mary and Crystal each take catwalk turns on their entrances, serving up healthy slices of back. (In both the evening-gown and Sir-Mix-A-Lot senses of the word.) That detail makes Mary's newfound spine and Crystal's anticipated downfall all the more exciting.

The show-stealer, aside from the costumes, is Head Bitch in Charge Sylvia Fowler (Julie Briskman), Mary's best "frienemy." Compared to the other characters, Sylvia is just round enough that when she brags about having kept her figure, the audience knows it's supposed to be a joke. Her costumes make her more busty and intimidating from one scene to the next, and her inevitable downfall is hilarious. Briskman is a fantastic comedic actress, and her faces, funky comments, and pratfalls are delivered with perfect timing.

Chris Rock has a thing or two to say about women in competition. To get through a woman's post-work tirade without being accused of not listening, he says, every man has to memorize just a few phrases: "I don't believe it!" "Really?" And, "I told ya that bitch crazy!" That last one is crucial, because every woman has another woman at her job that she can't stand. That's just as true in The Women, even though the women mostly don't work at all – even to take care of their own children. If I sound like I envy them, it's because I do. I think I could be perfectly happy hating my friends without having to go to work every day.

Kidding! I love you all.

Rock implies that men play only a supporting role in women's daily drama. That's certainly true in the curtain call at ACT. The director and the costumer, both men, outfitted the entire cast with slinky gowns – jungle red – just for that final bow. Women are the drama.


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