More Like The Girls

I suppose I arrived at Phoenix Theatre last weekend with expectations too high. But considering the talented cast that director D. Scott Withers -- no slouch himself -- assembled for the company's update of Clare Boothe Luce's famously funny The Women, I couldn't have guessed at the mess I'd find there.

Withers has created some nice scene changes, but he appears to have told his cast "Forget what you know about acting -- go out there and upstage!" Withers' decision to update the story from the 1930s to the more liberated 1960s serves only to make our heroine's decision to return to her cheating husband even less plausible. She's a buffoon, but a nicely dressed one: Cari Smith's costuming is first-rate.

Richard B. Farlow's stunning Mondrian-inspired backdrop is littered with some of the cheesiest set pieces seen outside of a high school drama department. These ladies are seen dining at fancy clubs and resorts and lounging in palatial homes appointed with the most rickety furniture and draped with the most meager poly-blends. Where went this show's budget?

It certainly wasn't spent by wigmaster Daniel Hollingshead, whose ghastly head-topping creations more closely resemble hats made of hair than they do anything that might actually have grown from someone's scalp.

From beneath these horrifying hairdos comes some of the worst acting these talented ladies have ever offered. I honestly didn't think I'd live to see Lillie Richardson give a bad performance, but her Sylvia Fowler is forced and silly; she isn't acting, she's showing off. And why is Cathy Dresbach, another of our most reliable local thespians, playing a handful of tiny ensemble roles, each of them more halfhearted than the last? In the lead, poor Robyn Allen attempts to capture our sympathy as the put-upon Mary, but she's surrounded by such aimless squawking that she eventually gives up and joins the others in mediocrity. And someone needs to do tiny Elizabeth Chamberlain a favor and tell her that acting just isn't her game. Her portrayal of Little Mary has all the charm of a box of wrenches; her big scene in Act One, in which she bursts into tears after discovering that her parents will divorce, was actually painful to watch.

Only Kristen Drathman (as perpetually pregnant rumormonger Edith Potter) and Katie McFadzen (as several different hilarious characters, most notably a nosy parker manicurist) escape unscathed from this tower of tittle-tattle. The final effect is not one of a group of talented actors who've come together to play a lot of wealthy women, but rather a roomful of prepubescent girls playing dress-up. Very badly, I might add.