The Female of the Species -- Theater Review

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In a performance of wit and sophistication, Annette Bening creates an unforgettable creature, equal parts Germaine Greer and Jacqueline Susann. When not handcuffed to a desk (see below), she strides across the stage with leonine command and grace and uses her elastic voice to caress each word and line and spits them out with deadly accuracy and spite.

Joanna Murray-Smith's clever but self-consciously fabricated play is about a feminist author who, on a figuratively dark and stormy night, meets up with five chums and strangers united in one cause: to put a bullet through her head.

The script has an unending flow of verbal and physical high jinks but too many sitcom-quality one-liners and a lazy reliance on popular culture for easy laughs. There also is too much insincere rattling on about the sexual issues that Bening's character has made her career by exploiting. And there's no pretense at character development for anyone except Bening. It feels like a work in progress.

Still, it's a reasonable recipe for fun at the theater -- except that Bening is handcuffed to that damned desk 90% of the time, and the cast is forced to take matters into their own hands, with results of varying quality.

Mireille Enos nearly steals the show as Bening's wonderfully distraught daughter; she completely unravels (and practically disrobes) when Josh Stamberg's taxi driver wields his tall, dark and handsome macho attitude. Julian Sands, magnetic as always, brings up the rear as a deus ex machina, cuddling his newfound daughter while patting the butt of an attractive male.

David Arquette's dufus son-in-law (who spends most of the time in an apron -- his feminine side) and Stamberg's unlikely cabbie both play characters of such inconsistent motive that their high-concept, high-energy turns are more like acting exercises than parts of an actual play. Merritt Wever works hard and methodically as the gun-bearing intruder who initiates the action but lacks edge and urgency.

The set is ravishing in browns and greens, as if the folks from Home & Garden had rushed over to do one of their custom makeovers. The lighting and sound teams do a remarkable job of following the active cast of six around the stage.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through March 14)
Cast: Annette Bening, Mireille Enos, Merritt Wever, Josh Stamberg, Julian Sands, David Arquette
Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Randall Arney
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: David Mickelson
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
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