Manhattan women of wealth but no particular purpose: Stephen Sondheim called them “the ladies who lunch” and saluted their hardihood as “dinosaurs surviving the crunch.” Actress/author/ambassador Clare Boothe Luce called them simply The Women and said she wrote her acid-tongued 1936 comedy to get the scabrous bunch of them out of her mind. When the play began its two-year Broadway run, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson referred to “the withering malice of New York’s unregenerate worldlings” and confided that he didn’t like them.
Liking them as women with whom you’d lunch is immaterial. Being entertained by them as vain, vapid ego-monstrosities is sweet easy when an in-period production is as splendidly dressed (Gretchen Vaughn), as elegantly set (Ronald A. Shaw) and as clickety-swift and mostly sharp-focused as staged by Mark Hardy at Northern Kentucky University.
Luce was both actress and socialite, married to Life magazine owner-publisher Henry Luce. She knew her New York women and pictured them without pity, cawing and clawing and forever pawing each other’s husbands. Servants, clerks, beauticians and such are treated more sympathetically. One wife, Mary Haines (Hannah Dowdy), contrasts the others sharply; she treats friends with humane affection. She’s warmly rewarded while the others get exactly what they deserve.
With Dowdy, four principle vixens lead the way through the fray: Intellectual Nancy (Meghan Logue), mousey Peggy (Julie Wacksman), pregnant Edith (Kate Kershaw) and vicious, vacuous Sylvia (Samantha Wright). That’s five strong performances, but most of the other 20 women also play well. One or two slip out of brittle comedy into breathy farce. During and after a knockabout fight sequence in Act Two, things slip into burlesque, but director (and ringmaster) Hardy mostly keeps the comedy high, dry and crackling.
Blessed be university theaters with mobs of actresses who can tackle such scripts and succeed with them. What contemporary theater company could meet a payroll with 25 players in the cast?
THE WOMEN, presented by Northern Kentucky University, continues through Dec. 14. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.