In his planning for the successful revival of Clare Booth Luce's play, "The Women," now running on Broadway, director Scott Elliott had one overriding goal: "I wanted this to be a show! I didn't want a museum piece. It had to have imagination behind it."
Mr. Elliott worked with set designer Derek McLane, with whom he's happily collaborated a half-a-dozen previous times, both on and off Broadway.
Mr. McLane initially saw some hurdles in "The Women" and recalls thinking: "It's an 11- or 12-set play, with a lot of stuff. It will be a struggle to give it some magic, some poetry."
But both the director and designer succeeded. The production, packing every seat at the Roundabout Theatre Company's new American Airlines Theatre, leaves audiences thoroughly entertained.
Originally presented in 1936, "The Women" follows the lives and loves of wealthy Park Avenue married women navigating their way through infidelities, gossip, jealousies, and rivalries in a world where women had to rely on their sex appeal rather than their wits to gain power.
Luce, who went on to marry Time Inc., founder Henry Luce and forge her own notable political career in Congress, took aim at the role of women in that era, but reinforced the belief that a woman's status came from the reflected glory of her husband. The 1939 film, directed by George Cukor and starring Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Joan Fontaine, softened some of the play's original messages.
"This is very much a style piece," set designer McLane points out. "The turning point for me was imagining the New York skyline. When I told Scott, he said, 'Go for it!' "
When the curtain rises within a proscenium painted with hundreds of red roses, the 1930s skyline shimmers behind all 26 women, lined up to welcome the audience into their world.
Before the first scene begins, two of the "buildings" wheel around, open up, and become the interior set pieces in the living room of the central character, Mary Haines (Cynthia Nixon). Elliott credits McLane's design with "making that first scene work" and setting the tone for the production.
Throughout the evening, the buildings change into other sets, supplemented with satin-covered furniture, versatile wall hangings, and period costumes by Isaac Mizrahi.
McLane injects witticisms and visual puns into the design. In a confrontational dressing-room scene, when a wife meets her husband's mistress, the back wall of the playing area is topped with a huge, curved clothes hanger. And the footlights that grace the stage line are all painted pale pink.
McLane recalls working on Ayub Khan-Din's "East is East," about Pakistani immigrants in England, where Elliott visualized "these crowded little spaces, these boxes with no room to move. And sometimes the actors would say, 'It's so crowded here,' and Scott would say, 'That's right. It has to be....' "
Elliott labels the result "a brilliant set."
"Derek is very conscious of how I work," director Elliott continues, referring in part to his belief that actors should have the freedom to experiment, even after the official opening. And having a set designer who understands that, he says, gives his actors the "space" to do that.
"If you go back and see the play again and again, you'll see the actors are totally enjoying the set more. That's the beauty of it. It's not going to feel stale...."
McLane's next assignment will be to tackle all six entries in the Stephen Sondheim festival at New York's Kennedy Center next year. Elliott expects to bring the life of Prohibition-era personality Texas Guinan to the screen sometime next year.
For its director and designer, "The Women" has brought personal rewards.
"Broadway has become a museum," Elliott says, "and to me, that's so boring. Imagination is what theater is all about, and this was the perfect opportunity."