Playing women of a certain age, four women stars of stage and screen who became famous a while ago play friends of a certain age who meet for a birthday brunch in Sandra Tsing Loh’s Madwomen of the West. The ensuing hilarity will be of most interest to baby boomers who still worship Gloria Steinem, Mary Tyler Moore and Hilary Clinton, but others will also find this an entertaining show as breezily directed by Thomas Caruso. The roles fit actresses Caroline Aaron, Brooke Adams, Marilu Henner and Melanie Mayron (returning to the New York stage for the first time in years) so well that one might think they were playing facets of themselves or of their screen personas.
In any case, their easy rapport suggests the television format of a talk show like The View where a group of women get together to discuss the topics of the day as well as their personal stories. While the show has almost no plot, each of the women has a secret that is eventually revealed by the end of the evening and resolved in a series of happy endings. A gimmick of the show is that the budget was so low that we the audience have to imagine a palatial set, lighting and sound effects although some of these things transpire nevertheless. At some point each of the actresses address the audience directly as though this is a talk show and we are the studio audience – or they are confiding in us.
It begins with Marilyn (Aaron), the founder of a respected school for girls, telling us that last week she gave the birthday brunch from hell for artist Claudia (Mayron) at the multimillion dollar home of the joint friend Jules (Adams). [She also plans on being on book until Jules tells her she knows all her lines so she discards her script immediately. She also plans on smoking until the stage manager tells her she can’t.] Jules is depressed since the pandemic when she first began drinking. The birthday girl Claudia is depressed because she has had a fight with her daughter JJ and money has become tight as her career has stalled even though she is a well-known name in her field.
But before any of this can get us down, their bubbly, upbeat college friend Zoey (Henner) arrives from London where she has been living the last 20 years. A former actress, she has become a world famous wellness specialist and has been on the road with her book tours and appearances. With her evanescent, optimistic personality, she gets them roused from their doldrums before the surprising and shocking revelations come tumbling out.
While much of the play is made up of the personal stories of the four characters, they also discuss topics of interest to women their age: marriages, children, mores, careers, fulfillment, sex, disappointments, college, memories, dating, political correctness, their bodies, and the changes in society. Each has a different point of view: Marilyn remains prudish; Zoey upbeat, Claudia (with a 15-year-old daughter) open to new ideas. Henner gets the audience to join her in a chorus of the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and at the performance under review the audience did just that, being letter perfect on all of the words.
Under Caruso’s assured direction, the four stars seem as comfortable on the stage as in their own living room even though most of them have not appeared on the New York stage in years. While you might not recognize what they look like now (although Henner doesn’t look like she has aged a day since her time on Taxi or Evening Shade) they sound the same. Each one plays a definite personality type. Aaron’s Marilyn is the judgmental one. Adams’ Jules is the moody one. Mayron’s Claudia is the curious, seeking one, and Henner’s Zoey is the bubbly, optimistic one who lets nothing get her down – even though even she has seemingly insurmountable problems.
The costume design by Sharon Feldstein & Erin Hirsh goes along with their personalities and economic levels: Claudia appears for her own birthday party in red and black pajamas as though she is too scattered to dress, while wealthy Jules wears a midnight onyx Issey Miyake (with the actress pretending she brought her outfit from home as there is no costume budget.) As the hostess, Marilyn wears a chic black pants suit with a light blue jacket, while fitness guru Zoey wears a tight fitting long-sleeved black jump suit with a chain link metal belt.
The living room setting by Christian Fleming is not as sketchy as described with two white armchairs and a matching love seat accompanied by a gold cocktail table. The backdrop represents California palm trees. None of Marilyn’s party decorations (described by Jules as over the top) are visible except for a colorful piñata hangs just out of reach. Pamela Kupper’s realistic and sunny lighting design occasionally turns pink or blue for mood effects. The sound design by Max Silverman consists of doorbells and cell phone pings, enough for the storyline.
On one level, Sandra Tsing Loh’s Madwomen of the West is a light entertainment which gives four famous actresses a chance to kick back and enjoy themselves on stage. On the other hand, the play also depicts the changes in society for women since the 1970’s. Enormously entertaining, Caroline Aaron, Brooke Adams, Marilu Henner and Melanie Mayron are great company and great fun to be around. Their fans should keep this running for a long time. Incidentally, the title is a pun as the women are mad, i.e. each is eccentric in her own way, and each is angry about something, either at someone in her life or how society has changed since her youth, not necessarily for the better.
Madwomen of the West (through December 31, 2023)
Actors Temple Theatre, 339 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission