What Do Women Want? Underwear by Isaac Mizrahi!

The best news about the new Roundabout production of The Women is its curtain call. Now, on the face of it, that doesn’t seem particularly hopeful news to announce. The show, after all, has come to an end. But not since the curtain call of Robert Cuccioli, the star of Jekyll & Hyde , has there been so much fun.

Mr. Cuiccioli, you will recall, performed both Jekyll and Hyde with his hair. When he was Jekyll he tossed his hair to the left, and when he was Hyde he tossed it to the right. Upon taking his curtain call, he therefore took his bow for having played both leading roles by tossing his hair to the left and right, to thunderous applause. Fair enough.

But The Women has the most surprising and delightful curtain call I’ve ever seen, bringing out everyone in the all-female cast, as it boldly does, to take a bow in their vintage late-1930′s underwear designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

Just as you’re gathering up your coat to head home at the end (while thinking, perhaps, “Is Clare Boothe Luce worth it?”), out the ladies come to take their bows-all shapes and proud, unabashed sizes in this curtain-call fashion show for the ages, twirling and bowing in their silky big knickers and garter belts, brazen and demure in their fine lingerie and seductive slips, laughing with us in their stylishly complicated, semi-structured, decorative layers of secret stuff . Ecce Woman!

God love ‘em, that’s what I say. They certainly wore a lot of underwear in the late 1930′s. And it beats a thong. A thong things its own thong. But a thong lacks a certain mystery; it’s always in a rush. The surprise fashion parade turned out to be such a chic, uninhibited eyeful that my only regret is that Isaac Mizrahi himself didn’t take a bow, as is the custom. Also, he could have reprised his immortal rendition of “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You” from his one-man hit show, Les MIZrahi .

Why the underwear curtain call? Do we sense a symbolic stripping away of Womanhood here? We do. Still, it was an enjoyably frothy, historic bow just the same, and a perfect metaphor for the urbane, campy 1936 comedy that’s all about a group of women who reveal themselves as they truly are. But the problem with Ms. Luce’s empty-headed women is that there’s no underneath underneath. No self-respecting woman would want to be one of them. Though this too-renowned period piece has its witty moments, it succeeds more in rationalizing why the institution of divorce is absolutely essential. There are women like these, I guess. But they’re not a credit to the species. Ms. Luce’s yammering, eternally dishing females are silly women-insecure, man-hungry, money-grubbing, poor old desperate broads who aren’t nice , though some people don’t think so. They think they’re jungle-red smart and sassy, or an entertaining drag show in disguise, or some early covert case for women’s lib. They can think what they like. On the other hand, George Cukor’s classic 1939 movie version with Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer wilting, as ever, in martyrdom has kept many of us happy on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

If only they could have backtracked from the curtain-call frivolity and taken the play less seriously. True, the movie is a lighter, softer-edged version of a play that’s more relentlessly suspicious of love (and shorter). But Scott Elliott’s production of The Women screechingly takes no prisoners. Understatement isn’t his forte, alas, and his previous Broadway outings haven’t been happy. There was his camped-up, gay version of Nöel Coward’s Present Laughter with flashing for the gallery; his remarkable, un-Chekhovian Three Sisters had Jerry Stiller playing the irredeemably disillusioned army doctor, Chebutykin, which would have been perfect casting had Chebutykin lived in the Catskills.

Mr. Elliot has got some fine and generous-hearted performances from the big cast of The Women . His use of Mr. Mizrahi is inspired; the sets by Derek McLane are a pleasure. But the broad, uneven production is characterized by a loud verve that’s meant to pass for stylish sophistication. Almost everyone is pushing too hard. Even the child actor in her little beanie screeches to the roof. When it comes to adorable child actors, I tend to be with W.C. Fields, who liked to kick them. The yelling, spoiled child; the wan, smug mother-is it any wonder that daddy left home for the comforting embrace of a slut?

It’s a relief to be in the quiet, authoritative company of Mary Louise Wilson’s Mrs. Morehead, who’s Mary’s sensible Mum in a high-lace collar. Cynthia Nixon’s Mary-mother, in turn, to the brat in the beanie, Little Mary-is the center of the play in her conservative Madeleine Vionnet early-30′s look. No one could act the glazed, stunned innocence of betrayed upper-class Mary better than the always excellent, sly Ms. Nixon, but I found as the evening wore on that a little bit of pathetic Mary goes a long way.

Crystal Allen (played in the movie by Joan Crawford) is the scheming salesgirl who gets Mary’s man, and Jennifer Tilly plays her broadly as a coarse bimbette. But there’s no promise of cool danger in her, no lethal threat. Ms. Tilly’s charming nude scene, when she emerges boldly buck-naked from a bubble bath, is unusual in a light period comedy, but it isn’t my place to say that Brazilian bikini waxes lack the authentic 1930′s detail. Kristen Johnston’s arch gossip and troublemaker, Sylvia (the Rosalind Russell role), all but knocks herself out in cutting-edge Schiparelli. Rue McClanahan’s dumpling Countess- “L’amour! L’amour!”-is something else again in her tight-fitting Reno bathing outfit that never saw water. Jennifer Coolidge’s ever-pregnant Edith Potter (who loathes children) is a comic delight in her Viking-red fox capelet with matching pom-pom.

There’s also an exceptional young talent, Heather Matarazzo, shining in the small supporting role of a maid, and Ms. Matarazzo surely won’t be playing maids much longer, unless it’s Joan of Arc. But I’m afraid the evening is a long, bumpy ride at almost three hours. If clothes maketh the woman, do they maketh the show?

I wisheth.