Park Square Theatre
For Whom The Southern Bell Tolls
at Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater
WE HAVE BEEN waiting for a revival of Clare Boothe's caustic 1936 comedy The Women--unknowingly, perhaps, but waiting nonetheless. Here, as in George Cukor's eponymous film classic, are New York society's "harpies, harridans and hussies" in "backbiting" action (as described with alliterative flair in the program notes), clawing the glamorous facade off the life of courtship and couture. In other words, we have found the antidote to the feel-good Austenalia that has intoxicated the trend-criers of the Critic Class; as Martin Amis jested in a recent New Yorker essay, just a few decades ago such unapologetic fawning over the upper crust would have had young audiences behaving like British football fans.
Boothe's comedy of bad manners focuses on the naive Mary Haines (or, as society would have it, Mrs. Stephen Haines). Confronted by her husband's infidelity, Mary (Heidi Ricks) must either contrive to win him back or suffer social obsolescence. But the incident also awakens her to the connivance of her putative friends. The perpetually pregnant Edith, a gossip and a gripe, honors the miracle of birth by ashing on her infant's head. Sylvia is treacherous, odious even. In their compulsory idleness, the women are like diplomats without portfolios--left to espionage, infighting and malicious intrigue.
Director Richard Cook's restraint is commendable; given a script with such camp potential, the temptation to indulge in Dynasty aesthetics must have been powerful. In the same vein, one is surprised to find the cast entirely free of hirsute crossdressers. Yet I cannot suppress a sour suspicion that there is fun to be had here that is not being had. Though the demographics of the cast are exciting--19 women filling over 40 roles--the capable individual performances, with few exceptions, are also a little small. Forgettable. It does not help that the only halfway heartfelt scene in the play--a teary harangue on parental abandonment--is yoked on the still-shaky shoulders of a child actor; call me meanspirited, but if I were granted any one wish for the new theatrical year, it might be deliverance from all those brave little troopers who (through no fault of their own) cannot yet differentiate between affected and affecting.
The culpability of Boothe's coven for perpetuating their own rituals of self-degradation recalls a debate on female genital mutilation (stick with me here): What we see--women willingly abusing their own--only follows that which we do not. No truculence that transpires among the women onstage can equal the casual cruelty of the boys jerking the strings behind the scenes. The ultimate judgement on this conundrum, proffered facetiously by Boothe, might come from an implausibly leggy cigarette vendor at play's end. A seasoned ringside observer of catfights, she proposes a prole escape from the bed-jockeying of the aspiring mistresses and tenuously positioned wives: I think I'll become a communist. Well spoken, sister.
Where Clare Boothe's urbane script boasts an off-the-charts BMPM
score (that is, Bon Mots per Minute), Christopher Durang struggles to consistently deliver quality crassitude in For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls, a mediocre one-act parody of The Glass Menagerie. While I have previously maintained that this mawkish Tennessee Williams drama could play as comedy, Durang proves that the biggest targets are not always the easiest to hit.
At the toll of Durang's magic bell, fragile, limping Laura has become Lawrence, a wretched bachelor who looks and acts a bit like Bob Denver. Lawrence has asthma, eczema, and suppurating podiatric issues, and wears a pink fanny pack to carry his medications; all his love is saved for a collection of glass swizzle sticks ("I call this one blue, because it's blue"). Tom, the brooding shoe-factory worker, cradles his thermos like a surrogate phallus and cruises for sailors at skin flicks. The poltroonish gentleman caller has become Ginny, the "feminine" caller; just as much the fool, but half deaf and butch to boot. Mother Amanda is... well, she's still pretty much the same old bossy Amanda, if a little less the Christian martyr.
While the production's dramatic range spans all the way from puerile to zany, before inveighing any further against poor Durang I feel some professional obligation to divulge that most of the full house at Bryant Lake Bowl laughed hard and laughed often; that includes the cast of the original Glass Menagerie, on an off-duty visit from the Jungle Theater. A critic ignores such empirical evidence at no small risk. So while I can objectively imagine that an audience compares Southern Belle to the sophisticated literary spoofs of Woody Allen or the sight gags of filmmakers Zucker and Abrams (Airplane and Naked Gun)--all of which are funny--once one is stuck explaining the appeal of comedy the battle is already lost. CP
The Women runs through February 3; call 291-7005 for showtimes and information.For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls runs through February 24; call 825-8949 for showtimes and information.