Chris Bennion

Claire Booth Luce is one of those rare writers whose biography is more interesting than her characters. Her 1936 play The Women is a comedy about the lives of society ladies, but Luce's life contained multitudes. She was, for a spell, a playwright and New York society lady, but also a suffragette, a war correspondent in Europe and Asia, an editor at Vanity Fair, a U.S. representative (R–CT), a fierce anticommunist, and an influential ambassador to Italy. She divorced her alcoholic husband in 1929, converted to Catholicism in 1946, and fooled around with LSD in the late 1950s. In 1981, President Reagan appointed her to his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

The Women is far more domestic, a satire about bitchy, upper-class wives whose lives are dictated by the status of their relationships with their husbands. When the men are happy, so are the women. When the men start keeping mistresses, the play begins.

The men never appear onstage, but drive the action like stupid, clumsy Grecian gods. The women react. They gossip with, snipe at, and occasionally comfort each other, but schadenfreude is the dominant mode. "Don't confide in your girlfriends!" one imminent divorcée is told by her mother. "If you let them advise you, they'll see to it, in the name of friendship, that you lose your husband and your home. I'm an old woman, dear, and I know my sex."

The imminent divorcée is Mary Haines (Suzanne Bouchard), the happily married mother of two who learns, long after her friends do, that her husband is having an affair with a bottle-blond gold digger who works at Saks. (Luce is as interested in class warfare as in the battle of the sexes.) Haines gets divorced, so do a few others, and the play ends with a climactic catfight at a casino, during which our humble but steely heroine usurps her usurper and, we assume, restores her marriage.

But the plot is secondary, just a car for Luce's wit to ride around in. Imagine Oscar Wilde as a 1930s New York society woman instead of an 1890s London blade, and you can imagine what the dialogue aspires to—aphorisms and indictments around bridge tables and in beauty salons. For all their fighting, the one thing all the women share is the anguish of the second sex. From Haines's daughter: "I don't want to be a little girl. I hate girls! They're so silly, and they tattle, tattle." From her one of her maids: "Marriage is a business of taking care of a man and rearing his children. It ain't meant to be no perpetual honeymoon." And so on.

The Women requires an ambitious production: 12 set changes, a huge cast, and an enormous 1930s wardrobe. The design is good (the curtain call has its own universally scarlet wardrobe) and striking tableaux zoom up from beneath the floor and behind rear walls.

ACT has hired 16 actors to play Luce's revolving door of caricatures. There is the aged and vain countess, the gossipy peacocks, an innocent newlywed, the pregnant matron, the Broadway starlet, the wry writer (the play's only single woman: "I'm what nature abhors—a virgin"), the tough Western broad who takes her licks with a smile and a song, our innocent but steely heroine, et al. There is also the pack of girls—the beauticians, servants, and sales clerks who fawn over the women for tips, then savage them once they and their pocketbooks have exited.

The girls get the best lines and give most of the best performances—Annette Toutonghi as a tattling manicurist, Suzy Hunt as an incensed nurse, and Elise Hunt as a young maid. (Among the principals, only Jennifer Lyon as the Saks floozy and Julie Briskman as a preening gossip give capable, entertaining performances.) In the second act, Elise Hunt has a long speech where she reenacts a fight between our heroine and her cheating husband—it's one of the most entertaining (and touching) moments of the play. Her making fun of the dialogue was better than the actual dialogue, which means something in the direction (by Warner Shook) has gone terribly wrong.

The play's wit should skip with a lightness that sweetens its bitter satire. But this production ruins Luce's playful cynicism with heavy—sometimes too dour, often too shticky—delivery. The Women should sparkle like champagne, but it clobbers like a roofie.

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If The Women is a comedy about social assassination, Jeffrey Hatcher's Murderers concerns death of a more literal kind. As three long monologues spoken by residents of Riddle Key Luxury Senior Retirement Living Center and Golf Course, the play lives and dies by its actors.

Mostly, it dies. The first two monologues—one by a young gigolo who married up, the second by an embittered wife determined to slaughter her husband and his old mistress—are tepidly written and nervously performed. The comedy is weak, not just because the jokes are obvious (AARP catalogs, prescriptions, golf), but because the pathos is weak. Hatcher's characters aren't entertaining monsters, nor do they struggle with their bloody moral calculus. Who knew murder could be so banal?

The third act wakes everybody up. It is about an employee at Riddle Key who becomes an avenging angel, secretly killing the kinds of people who habitually prey on the old—scam artists, greedy children, gold diggers (no one likes a gold digger), and predatory lawyers all perish in satisfyingly grisly ways.

It doesn't hurt that the story is told by Sarah Rudinoff, whose solo shows such as Go There and The Last State are legendary. The other actors (Mark Anders and Joan Porter Hollander) merely paddle around in their speeches—Rudinoff overpowers her material. She makes it her own and makes it better. recommended

brendan@thestranger.com