The Women, by Clare Boothe Luce | Directed by Deborah Jones

New Theatre (newtheatre.org.au) | New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 12 September

The Women, by Clare Boothe Luce, first played on Broadway in 1936. Set in Manhattan shortly after the Wall Street crash and the ensuing Great Depression, in its day it probably had a lot to say on the indulged lives of the wealthy Manhattan socialites, around whom the play navigates.

One of which is Mary Haines (Helen Stuart), the central character. She is an upper-middle-class ‘housewife’, married to Stephen, with two children, and, as the play begins, she is totally unaware that Stephen is having an affair with a much younger woman, Crystal (Eleanor Ryan).

Sylvia Fowler (Jess Loudon), Mary’s ‘friend’, arranges for Mary to hear the escalating gossip and, when the affair becomes public, Mary files for divorce. As Mary journeys to Reno and back, her perspective changes courtesy of women in similar circumstances to herself.

There are an array of characters in this play, all female, played at New Theatre by 18 very talented women. Each performance is excellent, collated comprehensively by Deborah Jones’ incisive direction which effectively elicits the chemistry between the characters.

All characters convince. Helen Stuart brings subtlety to the role of Mary, the ideal wife, faithfully bearing children, caring for her husband but relying on him financially. Jess Loudon as Sylvia Fowler, the blunt, disloyal and dishonest gossip, drives the drama, while Eleanor Ryan as the flirtatiously loud, brash and deceitful Crystal is an appropriate ‘pawn’.

Deborah Jones organises these complex and negative relationships, fuelled by jealousy and cynical values, into a venomous web, where the servants humorously philosophise on the role of women.

Men, in this play, are the topic of the banter between the characters but they are never seen. Rather the on-stage power struggle is all about marriage and its role as a vehicle for social advancement.

John Cervenka’s opulent and sleek set places us graphically there. As does Alexandra Plim’s impressively extensive costume coordination. Wow!

Deborah Jones’ tight direction sculpts these characters with clarity and attempts to move the overlong script along, but when all is said and done, it is still a dated piece.

However, it is worth a look as we are still, today, seeing the same scenarios in contemporary shows such as Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives where amidst all the frivolity of consumerism, gossip and social-climbing there remains an underlying society defined by men.