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“L’amour, l’amour,” sighs the blissfully neurotic Nancy Robinette, superbly cast as the Countess de Lage in Arena Stage’s tart but delicious revival of The Women. It’s her favorite word, yes, but of course Clare Boothe Luce’s play isn’t concerned with love at all—it’s concerned with grim compromise, with the playwright’s hostile view of what one character calls “woman’s inhumanity to woman,” and above all with unrepentant bitchery cloaked in faultless high style.

What it’s not concerned with, regardless of the connections some will inevitably try to draw to Washington’s Topic A, is real social commentary. Yes, Luce lards her script with brief backstairs vignettes meant to cast revealing light on the hollow, self-involved society women at its center and the weak-willed, libido-led men who lurk at its edges, but there’s no profound payoff there, just more irony. Along with sarcasm and a brittle, defensive cynicism—irony is, in fact, The Women’s entire stock in trade; it’s packaged alluringly at Arena, what with Paul Tazewell’s haute-drag costumes and Thomas Lynch’s art-deco dream of a set, but the pretty wrappings can’t quite disguise a freshness date long expired.

As for the plot—well, just ask any connoisseur of camp, and he’ll tell you (between dramatic renderings of the script’s best lines) that The Women isn’t about plot, it’s about dialogue. If nothing in the 1936 script quite equals the razor wit of that era’s most famously scathing writer, Dorothy Parker, it’s still a juicy, quotable document. “You talk like a horse trainer,” says a pampered, stubborn matron to her exercise coach. “You’re getting warm,” the coach snaps back. And when an author announces plans for an African safari, the same matron aims her rhetorical blowgun: “I don’t blame you. I’d rather face a tiger any day than the sort of things the critics said about your last book.”

And it’s about situations. Mary Haines, the nauseatingly noble creature at its center, begins the evening rich and happy and ends it just as rich and nearly as happy, if with slightly fewer illusions about what happiness means. (Luce seems to suggest that the condition is incompatible with self-respect.) But between curtain-up and curtain call, dear Mary’s visits to an expensive salon (for a manicure and a devastating bit of gossip about her philandering husband), an exclusive department store (for a showdown with the interloping blonde), and an exclusive Reno dude ranch (for a divorce) provide opportunities for mingling with a small and incestuous circle of social butterflies—most of them thinly disguised wasps, really—among whom husband-poaching is a spectator sport and the reaction to a woman’s halting confession of marital discord is inevitably “Yes, that’s what I heard.”

Arena’s faultless cast makes the playing of these women’s interactions as much fun as even the most devoted fan of George Cukor’s 1939 film version (necessarily tighter and brighter than the play) could expect. The gentle, plaintive-voiced Ellen Karas, used to such effect in Arena’s Expecting Isabel, is even more appropriate for Mary, and just when you begin to wonder if that wistful expression is ever going to give way to something more pained, she manages a genuinely convincing explosion.

Robinette may never surpass her serenely batty performance in Woolly Mammoth’s Freedomland last fall, but her Countess is sublimely over the top; it’s worth the ticket price just to see the picture she cuts in sheepskin chaps, scarlet boots, and spurs that actually do jingle. And, wise woman, she chooses an entirely original reading of that signature “L’amour!” line, knowing that film cultists will come to the theater with Mary Boland’s inflections ringing in their acute little ears.

Martha Hackett makes a more venomous Sylvia Fowler than Rosalind Russell’s famously ditzy film creation, an approach that’s actually more in line with Luce’s script. Sarah Marshall’s cuttingly ironic line readings are backed by a characterization that underscores Miss Blake’s status as the play’s most self-aware, most sympathetic character. (And she and director Kyle Donnelly have merely highlighted, rather than imposing, that very definite idea they convey of Miss Blake’s lesbianism; it’s clearly implied in at least two places on the page.)

Dana Krueger, suitably severe as Mary’s soberingly worldly mother, wears with aplomb a divine-absurd hat that looks like the front end of those sensuously deco ocean liners the French built in the ’20s, and her performance is as assured as her modeling. Brigid Cleary (as the ever-expecting Edith Potter) and Stacey Leigh Ivey (as the vixen Crystal), respectively, mine laughs from a bit with an ash and a bit with an ass, the former cut by screenwriter Anita Loos from the much less naughty film and the latter a directorial fillip added by Donnelly. Ida Elrod Eustis gives what may be the evening’s most miraculous performance; somehow, she creates actual character out of a caricature (Reno ranch-owner Maggie) in a relatively small time on stage, and she does it without sacrificing the laughs her part is written to supply.

Donnelly deserves credit for keeping the stage business bustling about so patrons on all four sides of the Fichandler’s stage get equal time as relative front-and-center. (The only time Donnelly’s efforts in that regard seem obvious is early on, when Robinette’s Countess takes a seemingly superfluous ride in a hairdresser’s chair.)

More dazzling even than Donnelly’s inventive direction and Lynch’s gee-whiz set, with its magically disappearing bathtubs and bridge tables, are Tazewell’s costumes. Severe suits and bustled gowns alike are a triumph of imagination and tongue-in-cheek humor—Mary’s Act 2 lounging robe seems to have been assembled from the pelts of the Pink Panther and six or seven of his rose-colored cousins, and the evening dress she wears for her confrontation with Crystal is a stunningly ambitious (and somehow successful) thing in chartreuse satin and claret velvet. If The Women itself is a triumph of style over substance, Arena’s production argues—with some conviction—that when you’ve got a creative team with this much money and this little restraint, style can be a guiltily satisfying substance all by itself. CP