ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

'The Women'

Sure, it's a catfight with costume changes. But Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 comedy "The Women," now at Circus Theatricals, is also an acute look at the bad deals women make for security, financial and psychological. Diane English recently tried to update this guilty pleasure with Meg Ryan and crew, but the original take remains unmatched in its portrait of urban estrogen.

Trouble hits her Park Avenue paradise when steady Mary Haines (Vanessa Waters) learns that her perfect husband of 12 years has taken up with Crystal Allen (Stephanie O'Neill), a floozy from the perfume counter in Saks. Her pride stung, Mary can't decide whether to fight for her man or make a break for Reno and a quickie divorce. Meanwhile, her "friends" offer all manner of bad advice and example: Machiavellian gossip Sylvia Fowler (Jenni Fontana) is a one-woman reconnaissance operation, plump Edith Potter (Emma Messenger) just stays pregnant, and skittish novelist Nancy Blake (Cameron Meyer) keeps her ring finger free.

Director Elise Robertson's vivid, juicy production makes the most of Circus Theatricals’ studio space, framing the stage with a raspberry velvet curtain and deftly changing locales with the ingenious use of Deco-style wood modules. Stephanie O'Neill and Rachel Kanouse's numerous costumes are hit and miss, but they nail the ladies' hats, furs and undergarments with a vengeance.

There's plenty of screwball here, yet it's the playwright's cool, unapologetic eye that gives "The Women" its tart flavor. Observing the wealthy female in her natural habitat -- a salon, a high-end department store dressing room, with a personal trainer, in her war room (a.k.a. the bathroom) -- Luce never lets us forget that the hand-wringing of privileged women is made possible by the sweat of the working class. And she's darn funny. Edith, eyeing a puny watercress sandwich: "I'd just as soon eat my way across the front lawn."

The 15-member, all female cast includes some blunt performances -- does Crystal have to be quite such a caricature? She and the lovely Bibi Tinsley, as Mary's mother, advocate realpolitik in matters matrimonial, yet barely seem to be in the same play. And you hope both Waters and Fontana will find a few more colors as the run continues. Despite Robertson's admirably brisk direction, the evening runs almost three hours, and by the last flounce of an evening gown, we're ready for the return of domestic bliss -- or at least business as usual. Still, as Luce knew so well, there is nothing so fascinating as other people's marriages.

"The Women," the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Nov. 1. $25. (323) 960-1054 or www.circustheatricals.com /tickets.html. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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