In 1971, Ms. Magazine ran a satire by Judy Syfers titled "Why I Want a Wife." In the now-classic piece of feminist humor (and as this play points out, feminism and humor are not incompatible), Syfers discussed how a male friend of hers, recently divorced, was looking for a new wife, and the author realized that she wanted a wife, too.
Who doesn't want a wife to cook the meals, take care of the children, and entertain guests? A wife who makes sure that her partner is satisfied, without asking for satisfaction in return? And most importantly, Syfers opined, she wanted her old wife to let her replace her with a new wife if the whim should arise.
Playwright Michele Lowe puts a clever contemporary twist on these desires in her latest work, The Smell of the Kill. Lowe also questions the very definition of a wife some thirty years after Ms. readers rebelled against June Cleaver. Is she someone who "has a hot batch of cocktail franks and a cold drink waiting when her husband comes home," as these female characters bemoan their mothers did? Is she a big-income businesswoman? Or a BabyBjörn-wearing Mom? Or both?
This vengeful tale of three suburban housewives opens in the sprawling kitchen of Nicky, a large-breasted blonde whose expensive dye job carefully matches her Scandinavian wood cabinetry. Barbara Sims, who resembles Martha Stewart, is perfectly cast and superb as the woman who wants to have it all and realizes she can't. Nicky's two-hundred-dollar honey-wheat highlights and expensive clothes are typical of the aged trophy wife's attempt to maintain the illusion that all is well-kept and cared-for. Sadly, they're also usually a sign that he's about to trade her in for a younger model.
Her friends, if that's what you call the wives of her husband's best college buddies, are equally delusional. Molly (Mhari Sandoval), a seemingly ditzy redhead, receives dozens of roses and a dozen GAP t-shirts in every color from her adoring (read: controlling) husband but only wants a baby. Debra (Brigitt Markusfeld) is an ex-realtor turned stay-at-home mom who buys her lime Jell-O mold in a neighboring suburb so no one will know she doesn't cook.
Throughout this well-paced, one-act play, which takes place entirely in the supposed heart of a 1.25 million dollar home after a dinner party, any husband considering philandering might be quick to reconsider Syfer's closing line, "My God, who wouldn't want a wife?" In this case, the answer might be a resounding "not me."
The first clue that all is not as it seems is Ramsey Avery' s amazingly elaborate set. It recreates the type of mini-mansion where the countertops are filled with jars of tricolor pasta, roasted peppers, and various olive oils that never have and never will be opened. The cookbooks' spines have never been cracked, and although the kitchen is filled with expensive coffee table books like The Lost Impressionists and the Art of Gauguin, the dog-eared pulp novel Death Cruise and the latest issue of Ideal Home are clearly the only texts that have been touched. Suffice it to say that these two titles point out the evening's events and location.
Lowe gives an intelligent nod to one of my favorite plays, The Women by Claire Boothe Luce. She keeps the characters and action entirely within the regions of domesticity, the kitchen and the nursery, and suggests that while men are the mainstay of these women's lives, they aren't even worthy of being shown to the audience.
Lowe also seems to be tweaking Tolstoy's great line, "All happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are miserable in their own way," when Debra proclaims, "Every couple has their problems." Each woman here has what women are supposed to desire and therefore be happy with: a husband, money, and a spacious house. But these are no ideal homes.
Plotlines in which a man does his woman wrong are ubiquitous, but Lowe's script and Tim Ocel's direction and attention to detail keep the theme fresh. At one moment, when the women refuse to make dessert for the demanding beasts in the living room, the oafs send a torrent of golf balls careening into the kitchen. It's a perfect metaphor: small white balls that come fast but have no real power beyond the country club and extended business meetings. Nicky scoops them up, dumps them in the fruit bowl, and covers the makeshift soufflé with a thinly whipped cream that resembles nothing more than... well, you can guess. She tries to top the whole mess with a shot of RAID pesticide, but the real vengeance comes later, in a more fitting form.
As a third-wave feminist, I wanted to believe that the predicaments of these wives are merely comic fodder. I had thought that anyone who came of age past 1960 wouldn't even consider the idea that "a clean apron and cocktail franks" are a wife's only goal. But Lowe's genius is pointing out that even if we're not all there yet, no one needs to put up with little wienies.
The Smell of the Kill is the stage at Geva Theatre Center, Tuesdays through Sundays through February 8. Showtimes are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tix: $13.50-$47. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.