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Three Women Talking

British playwright Arnold Wesker’s new play about gender relations opens at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre.

Toward the end of Arnold Wesker’s new play Three Women Talking, a slightly tipsy character named Claire Dawn Hope delivers a long speech at an all-female dinner party. Introduced mock-portentously as “the Puzaltski story,” the speech is a vulgar joke about a wife who fills in for her football-player husband on his last game with the team. Injured heroically on the field, she’s hauled off to the locker room, where the trainer, incapable of believing a woman could have performed so superbly, pushes down on her breasts and assures her that “as soon as I getcha balls back into place your prick will come out of hiding, trust me!”

Though the rest of its conversation generally takes place on a more elevated level, Three Women Talking never strays from the topics embodied in the Puzaltski story. The two-act comedy-drama—currently receiving its premiere, not in Wesker’s home base of England but at Northlight Theatre in the Chicago suburb of Evanston—is permeated by themes of competition and violence (primarily psychological). It explores the experience of being an outsider (Wesker says his Jewishness makes him “an alien voice in the British theatre”), women’s painful efforts to assert themselves on the male-dominated playing field of society, and men’s tendency to ignore women’s distinctive sexual and emotional characteristics—and their power. The Puzaltski story, with its topic of cross-gender impersonation, also leads to the question of a male playwright’s ability to put himself in women’s positions.

Wesker says his intention was to write a play about the way women talk about men. “I know what you’re going to ask: ‘How do you presume to say you know how women talk?’ I never know what to say to that. There were strong women in my life. My mother, my sister, four aunts, some special cousins…I prefer women. Nearly all my plays have women as central characters. They’re more courageous, intense.”

The characters in Three Women Talking, male and female, are certainly intense. The play might more accurately be called Three Couples Talking, though the couples are estranged. The men speak first, in a series of short monologues: Leo, a 44-year-old financial analyst, is in anguish because his wife Mischa has left him; Montcrieff, a 55-year-old writer, rambles on to an imagined mistress about his ex-wife Minerva, whom he left five years earlier; Vincent, a rising Labor Party politician, rehearses for an upcoming television interview.

It is to watch Vincent’s interview that the three women have gathered over dinner at Mischa’s apartment. The hostess (Carmen Roman), 42, is an academic of Eastern European Jewish ancestry; Minerva (Mary Ann Thebus) is a 50-year-old businesswoman and disillusioned ex-feminist; and Claire (Margo Buchanan), a 39-year-old political researcher, is the recently discarded mistress of Vincent, who dumped her to preserve the family-man image necessary to his political career. An embittered anti-idealist, Claire seems the most proper and least earthy of the three women; but, like the Mrs. Puzaltski of her joke, she reveals an unsuspected capacity for getting down and dirty when the game gets rough.

Nevertheless, Three Women Talking is very much a play of ideas. Wesker, who came to prominence in the late 1950s and early ’60s with such plays as Roots, The Kitchen and Chips With Everything, “thinks internationally, yet feels domestically,” the late British critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote. Despite its homey settings—including the mock-living room set of the TV talk show Vincent appears on—Three Women Talking addresses far-reaching issues: possible war between Islamic theocracies and Western societies that lack a unifying religious ideology; the Holocaust; and the scientific theory of chaos. Wesker’s characters toss about educated references to high and low culture ranging from the Bible to John Ruskin, from Singin’ in the Rain to Shakespeare.

Mostly, though, the characters talk about sexual relationships—from the raw realities of physical intercourse to the most perverse ambiguities of love, hate, faith and betrayal. The first words out of a woman’s mouth are commonplace hyperbole: “Men! They’re all the same! Interchangeable!” sneers the disenchanted Minerva. The play then proceeds to disprove her by laying bare the myriad inconsistencies of all its characters.

Minerva’s put-down of men as interchangeable also functions as a theatrical joke: While the women are played by three different actresses, the men are portrayed by a single actor, David Downs. At the play’s climax, Downs performs a trio with himself, as Montcrieff holds the stage in a long speech about wishing he could give birth—“to give meaning to this hopeless, helpless, weird and wonderful life”—while Leo is heard on tape and Vincent is seen and heard on videotape. This device was conceived last summer when Northlight’s artistic director, Russell Vandenbroucke, traveled to Wesker’s home in Wales for woodshedding sessions. (The relationship between Wesker and Northlight was established in 1988, when the theatre presented Wesker’s 1976 Love Letters on Blue Paper.) “I like the idea as a theatrical coup,” says Wesker. “It also means the actor has a substantial role.”

But what does Wesker really think about ideas like Claire’s assertion, “Men are for manipulating. Why else were we given tears?”

“I think women often say things like that,” he shrugs. “And at a certain level it’s true. There are unpleasant characteristics which men hold in common. And there are unpleasant characteristics which women hold in common. I didn’t ‘research’ this play—but I hear women talking about men. It’s sort of an accumulation of observations over the years. Some of it is imagined, of course. I projected myself into these personalities.

“I really don’t think characters live on the stage unless they have substance, so I endow my characters with ideas,” Wesker adds. “Sometimes the ideas these characters express are confused with the ideas of the playwright. They shouldn’t be.”

Still, it’s hard not to hear the writer’s own self-examination echoed in the words of his character Montcrieff, who longs to experience the uniquely female process of birth and says he’s “cursed with this infantile obsession to produce.” That leads to a riff on the subject of literature. “What is it? Scavenging! A writer is a vulture that picks at the dead and the partly living….And when I’ve got it all down in a book I go into a marketplace and I take it out of my pocket like a vendor of dirty little postcards, slightly ashamed. ‘You wanna look-see? You buy? Cheap and lovely literature! Best art in town!'”

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