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Some plays, like some novels, are written specifically for women to enjoy; when men don’t enjoy them, and say so, accusations of gender snobbery always flare up. But the answer to the false accusation is easy: Plays for women, like any other kind of plays, can be well or badly written; that, as Oscar Wilde said, is all. Never having seen Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias before, I had always assumed from its enormous success that it was a well written play I wouldn’t enjoy. Now, unfortunately, I know better: It’s a badly written play I don’t enjoy. It takes place in a beauty shop that caters to the gentry in a smallish Louisiana town, and contains among its few characters a suitable number of romances, backbitings, offstage crises, and medical disasters to fill an evening, but nothing is created with any particular conviction. The paper-thin characters talk a peculiar mixture of antique joke-book wheezes, old-fashioned gay male bitchery, and—though most of them appear to be actively anti-religious—the kind of pillow-embroidered sanctimony that evokes recollections of priests in old MGM movies. If women want to go to this sort of play, fine, but it’s high time the producers started reexamining writers like Zoe Akins and Rachel Crothers, who, put next to Robert Harling, come off like Shakespeare and Sophocles. Yes, there were giants in the earth in those days, even in the doily-covered realms of girl talk.
Not that sitting through Steel Magnolias is a painful experience, just slightly numbing in its factitious inanity. Jason Moore’s loose-jointed production doesn’t give it much drive or shape, but he’s blessed with a reasonably competent cast, which boasts two standouts: Christine Ebersole, as the frenetically overprotective mother of a bride-to-be, grounds the role so successfully in reality that she actually succeeds in wringing some genuine emotion out of Harling’s little Rube Goldberg of a tear-jerking plot twist. And Frances Sternhagen, as the slightly aloof local doyenne, has mastered a way of underplaying gag lines that rivals the best juggling acts in history: Her gift for tossing a line away as if it were worthless and catching a double-size laugh as her reward utterly defies explanation. Maybe Houdini would be a better analogy than a juggler: When Sternhagen speaks, the elephantine obviousness of the play magically disappears.