No surprise that one of the funniest and nastiest stories Elaine Stritch tells in her charming collage of songs and backstage tales, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, concerns a revival of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women. The band that accompanies Stritch throughout her two-and-a-half-hour musical memoir vamps away at “No Business Like Show Business” as the 76-year-old trouper describes the disastrous summer production in Dayton whose cast included Marilyn Maxwell, Marge Champion, and Gloria Swanson.
Swanson would forget her lines and signal to a stage manager lying behind an upstage couch with a script. Worse, Swanson insisted on a solo exit from her scene with Stritch near the end of the play, leaving the supporting lady to sit pointlessly onstage until the final curtain.
Stritch hilariously recounts the agonizing minutes leading up to that ending, as Champion milks her own exit and Stritch does everything in her power to stay glued to “Miss Champion’s every fustian nuance” so as not to distract the audience. Can we blame Stritch for clownishly collapsing in her chair like a dead fish when Champion finally gets out the door?
The rest of the company did, writing a letter to Actors’ Equity complaining of Stritch’s unprofessional behavior; the next night, she was barred by the parking lot attendant as she tried to enter the theater.
It’s one of many vignettes that Stritch, cowriter John Lahr, and director George C. Wolfe use to let art comment on life—and vice versa—as Stritch narrates her journey from stagestruck Midwestern wannabe to a star of such shows as Pal Joey and Company. The sympathetic director of The Women tells her, “Elaine, if those women behaved onstage the way they’re behaving offstage, we’d have a hit.”
The laugh comes, of course, from knowing that Boothe Luce’s 1936 comedy is most famous for its depiction of women’s cattiness: their eye-scratching, relationship-killing, soul-lacerating viciousness toward one another.
The play has that reputation in large measure because of the camp-classic film version, directed by George Cukor in 1939. Boothe Luce’s script is hardly affectionate toward her upper-crust ladies who snipe at each other—the playwright herself asserted, “The women who inspired this play deserved to be smacked across the head with a meat-ax. And that, I flatter myself, is exactly what I smacked them with.”
Nonetheless, if not more subtle than the film, the play is more precise. Boothe Luce’s target is a hypocritical bunch of well-to-do ladies who gussy themselves up, gossip maliciously about each other, and otherwise fill their time with idle, self-serving pursuits, while remaining firmly focused on the Most Important Achievement for a Woman: getting and staying married. Bald class antagonisms are expressed in the play—in one of the wittiest scenes, the heroine’s “help” chitchat in the kitchen about the mistress’s impending divorce. Department store clerks and coat-check girls get their licks in too (though are hardly let off the hook). Clearly, Boothe Luce is zeroing in on the distortions of high society, and offering an inchoate critique of a system that requires women to pour all their intelligence and talents into nail polish and hair perms.
The film—and Scott Elliott’s downright vulgar production with the Roundabout Theatre Company—takes aim at femininity itself. (Perhaps that only goes to show how thoroughly Hollywood makes gender and class mutually defining: What is traditional femininity but a mincing helplessness that working-class women have never had the luxury—or bad sense—to embrace?) It’s no wonder that when the Roundabout announced it would present the play, Elliott got letters from drag queens begging for roles.
Elliott didn’t go for such casting; he presents the play as a simpler sort of cartoon. Derek McLane’s confectionary set—art deco skyscrapers that open into plush backdrops—is the only successful outcome. Between-scene musical snatches—”My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” for instance—take on a creepy literalness in Elliott’s hyper-misogynist landscape. For the curtain call, he puts the cast of 24 in various sorts of lingerie (the over-the-top costumes are by Isaac Mizrahi) and follows it by cranking up Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” Where’s that meat-ax when you really need it?
With the exceptions of Cynthia Nixon and Mary Louise Wilson, who play the goody-goody heroine and her mother with some humanity and nuance, the actors shout, mug, hiss, and overplay at every turn, out-shrilling each other as if trying to see who can wail the highest without spoiling her voice for the next day’s performance. They are fine actors, every one, but Elliott has clearly instructed them to go for extremes. And lest we don’t understand that these women inhabit a world of caricature, he gives a store clerk called Miss Shapiro a Yiddish accent and imperious manner. Skillful, gifted Adina Porter is stuck playing various maid figures in ways that once inspired pickets from the NAACP.
If there were some deep critique attempted here—OK, even a shallow one—these clichés might serve some purpose. But Elliott is playing them merely for laughs. Because Boothe Luce’s dialogue is filled with zinging wit, laughs do come. (The play’s one unmarried professional, a virgin, describes herself as “a frozen asset”; a perpetually pregnant friend is asked, “Are you Catholic or just careless?”) But this production evokes a shameful sort of laughter, the kind that leaves you feeling embarrassed and cross and wondering why anyone bothered to revive this prickly play.
Elaine Stritch evokes laughter that does just the opposite. There’s not a moment of mean-spiritedness in even her most bitter memories. But there’s plenty of humorous self-criticism. As a young up-and-comer, she dumps Ben Gazzara for Rock Hudson: “We all know what a bum decision that turned out to be,” she says, banging her head against a chair.
Stritch speaks frankly about her drinking habit: “I was knocking ’em dead in the U.K. I was also, a little more frequently, knockin’ ’em back.” Though the narrative spirals into Oprah territory, Stritch’s full-out renditions of some of her signature songs—”Zip,” “Ladies Who Lunch,” and even a wonderfully tan-trumy take on “I’m Still Here”—keep the focus on her success. Overall, Stritch’s pure love of show business and her magisterial command onstage offer the theater as a place of deep humanity and grace. In these grievous times, that’s an especially precious gift.