Playwright Jonathan Leaf’s prodigious research, accomplished dramatic construction and clever device of threading a mystery throughout the events make the play quite engrossing. There’s also the sociological angle as the characters eloquently state and defend their differing beliefs and agendas that include careerism versus motherhood.
In his stage directions, after naming several specific real-life personalities who are discussed in the play, Mr. Leaf disavows any similarities to other persons and such as strictly coincidental. This must be taken as a sly disclaimer as his antagonists are clearly modeled on Steinem and Friedan, due to their biographical details corresponding to those of the actual women.
In the early 1990’s, the late 20’s graduate student Caitlin Schultz, who is unmarried with a young son, is writing her thesis. It’s on the feminist movement and a publisher is interested in putting it out as a book. Ms. Schultz goes to interview its two leading figures, the earthy author Doris Margolies (Friedan) and the glamorous editor of “Woman” magazine, Phyllis Feinberg (Steinem). The familiar setup of the younger questioning the older is skillfully handled.
Leaf employs an ingenious conceit of Doris and Phyllis having been students at the same college at the same time, shown in the play’s several flashback sequences. Margolies had a stormy marriage, wrote a best selling feminist manifesto and founded The National Organization of Women. Feinberg became a celebrated journalist before joining the group and has remained steadfastly single while having relationships with powerful men.
Their monumental conflict arose after the 1973 Houston conference where Margolies contentiously lost the presidency of NOW to Bella Abzug. After that crushing disappoinment she went off on her own path and Feinberg’s star rose. Was the election tampered with is the play’s mystery. Leaf has created two rich roles in the tradition of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, with their battles being the centerpiece of the play.
Judith Hawking’s grand performance as Doris propels The Fight. Using a strong accent that emphasizes the character’s Jewishness and brashness, Ms. Hawking gets every laugh possible, exhibits volcanic anger, as well as achieving poignancy. There’s also the palpable nurturing quality evident in Doris’ relationship with Caitlin. Hawking vividly conveys the sense of a capable leader being deposed for being unlikable.
Fleur Alys Dobbins winningly portrays Phyllis with dry wit, sophistication and steeliness. Ms. Dobbins’ intense characterization is very wound up and believably transmits the sense of the quest of “having it all.” That’s strongly demonstrated when Dobbins flirtatiously rationalizes asking her tycoon boyfriend for millions of dollars to keep her magazine afloat.
The animated and appealing Laura Bozzone as Caitlin, succeeds at putting a fresh spin on the stock character interviewer with her charming presence.
In smaller, multiple roles Mark J. Quiles and Matthew Provenza gamely and charmingly portray the various men in the women’s lives.
Finely written and performed, The Fight is unfortunately hampered by its low-budget physical production. It’s presented by the Off-Off Broadway The Storm Theatre Company that was founded in 1997. Their mission, “is the joyous celebration of existence through the staging of inspired plays from a wide range of countries and epochs… for relevance to our present day.”
Director Peter Dobbins’ resourceful staging makes the best use of the confined square playing area that’s beset with structural poles. There is, however, a cluttered quality and the subterranean space’s acoustics are problematic as at times actor’s voices seem amplified or muffled.
Michael Abrams’ scenic design is a threadbare assembly of old office furniture and tatty wingchairs. His lighting design proficiently represents the shifting time frames.
The sound design by Caroline Eng balances recorded pop songs and voice-overs that illustratively punctuate scene transitions.
Costume designer Danica Martino’s loud, print housedress for Doris is perfect for the character as are all of her snazzy creations for Phyllis and for the males.
Setting aside presentational imperfections, The Fight is a compelling take on the personal and the political with a fascinating historical backdrop.
The Fight (through November 18, 2017)
The Storm Theatre Company
Grand Hall, 440 Grand Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit http://www.stormtheatre.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with one intermission