Theater review: 'The Female of the Species' at Geffen Playhouse
Whether Joanna Murray-Smith’s “The Female of the Species” is a debate masquerading as a farce or a farce masquerading as a debate is hard to tell. What is clear is that the play, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of Randall Arney, allows Annette Bening to roar like a comic lioness and never let you forget who’s queen of this theatrical jungle.
With a raspy, imperious voice and a stylishly chopped haircut, Bening transforms herself into Margot Mason, a feminist icon struggling to write her next book. An aging radical living in literary luxury, she’s casting about for a new polemic, one that will revolutionize the gender status quo every bit as much as her landmark offering, “The Cerebral Vagina.” (This gag title, often repeated, tips off which way the satiric winds are blowing.)
Into this sitcom scenario bolts Molly Rivers (Merritt Wever), a university dropout whose life has been upended by Margot’s ever-changing ideological certainties. A former student of Margot’s, she's wielding a gun and a grudge, and her mission to teach the meaning of another important V-word, vendetta, isn’t simply because Margot told her she had no talent for writing.
Molly’s mother abandoned her after reading “The Cerebral Vagina,” which ordered women to find their identities outside of motherhood, and this lost soul ended up throwing herself in front of a train, clutching a copy of Margot's seminal text. Compounding matters, Molly, spellbound by Margot’s doctrinaire pronouncements, had an operation so that she can never have children. (The poor dear must have taken “Madame Ovary,” another of Margot's masterworks, too much to heart.)
“The Female of the Species” was inspired by a frightening real-life incident that happened to Murray-Smith’s fellow Australian Germaine Greer, author of the groundbreaking 1970s feminist classic “The Female Eunuch.” In 2000, Greer was held hostage and terrorized by a troubled female student at her farmhouse in England. Murray-Smith has claimed that the similarities between her character and Greer end there, although Greer, not buying it, has called the playwright “an insane reactionary.”
The animosity is understandable. Margot is a caricature of feminism, a rabble-rouser whose ideological passions blind her to human complexity. An intellectual fraud, she cares more about her lavish lifestyle than the lives that are crashing and burning under her influence.
The damaging effects of Margot are on vivid display when her daughter, Tess (Mireille Enos), a wife and mother (and thus a disappointment to Margot), arrives on the scene in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Discovering Margot gagged and handcuffed, she quickly finds herself in sympathy with Molly.
The farce’s contrivances, which play out in Margot’s posh study (fetchingly appointed by scenic designer Takeshi Kata), spiral further when men enter the picture. First comes Tess’ dull businessman husband, Bryan (David Arquette), followed by Frank, an irate and gruffly sexy taxi driver (Josh Stamberg), and then Margot’s gay publisher Theo (Julian Sands). Stamberg creates the most humorous stir, but then his character’s chauvinistic outbursts are the most zingily retrograde (“Women want a man who knows how to handle two things for them really, really well: Foreplay. And taxes.”)
Yes, there’s some hoary shtick on hand, and the plot sags under the pileup of its far-fetched occurrences. But Bening brings maximum gusto to her portrayal of a larger-than-life monster, and for all the heightened theatricality, she still renders Margot a recognizable, if incomplete, type.
The supporting cast is mostly sharp — Wever, a standout on the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” is particularly convincing in her handling of the play’s audacious setup, and Enos, a supporting player on HBO’s “Big Love,” utilizes dizzying mannerism to strong effect in Tess’ monologue on the relentlessness of motherhood.
But Arney’s production hasn't figured out what to do with actors when they’re not active in a scene. As characters subside into the background, it sometimes seems as if the performers have been switched into dormant mode.
Murray-Smith’s political points about the chaotic legacy of feminism might be more cogent had Margot been made more flesh and blood than parody. The character embodies all of the distasteful excesses yet none of the committed virtues of a movement that challenged society to rethink the fundamental inequality of the sexes.
In choosing easy laughs over more complicated historical truth, the playwright shortchanges the potential of “The Female of the Species,” and potential, as we know from feminists and other civil rights champions, is a terrible thing to waste.
-- Charles McNulty
follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
"The Female of the Species," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 14. $65 to $85. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Photos: Top: Annette Bening and Merritt Wever. Bottom: Mireille Enos, David Arquette and Bening. Credit: Ann Johansson / For The Times