Emily Walton. Photo: Richard Termine

Emily Walton. Photo: Richard Termine

By Stanford Friedman

Despite its declarative title, there is no feminist agenda on display in the Mint Theater’s charming but sharp-clawed production of Women Without Men. Quite the opposite. First produced in 1938, and set in that era at a Protestant girls’ boarding school in Ireland, a cast of eight women and three girls offer a class on the dire effects of spinsterhood. As assembled by a gaggle of disgruntled teachers, the syllabus includes false accusations, back-biting, humiliation, fear, loathing and lost youth. It’s the type of play where a line like “we’re all very nice,” gets a knowing laugh from the audience.

This work is sometimes compared to Lillian Hellman’s 1934 classic, The Children’s Hour, which is also set in a girls’ school. But the heart and soul of the play is much closer to Clare Boothe Luce’s 1937 comedy, The Women; though instead of upper class brats, here we are treated to lower middle-class teachers who are more childish than their pupils. There’s the aptly named Miss Strong (Mary Bacon) with her biting wit, and the sad Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey) with her 20-year-long side project, a book on the history of beauty. There’s the stressed out Miss Willoughby (Aedin Moloney) and the fading flower, Miss Ridgeway (Kate Middleton. No, not that Kate Middleton.). We observe them in their sanctuary, a nicely appointed teachers’ lounge (beautifully designed by Vicki R. Davis), where they spend off-hours bemoaning their fate and tossing cutting remarks at each other like knives. Into this crucible comes the newly hired instructor, Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton). She’s young, pretty, motivated and enthusiastic, everything that her new colleagues despise. And perhaps worst of all, she has a boyfriend.

It’s only a matter of time before Jean feels herself being pulled into the muck. “We’re like a lot of tom-cats tied to each other,” she observes. And later, trying to convince the women that their fate is at least better than, say, being stuck in a tragically unhappy marriage, Miss Strong fires back, “Tragedy is at least interesting.” Before long, Jean is accused of a heinous act, briefly turning the tale into a melodramatic whodunit. When the outcome is finally resolved, the women even find a way to perceive Jean’s victimization as a cold, calculated maneuver on her part.

Veteran Off-Broadway director Jenn Thompson makes the most of her fine cast, fast script and intimate setting at the Mint’s temporary new home, downstairs at New York City Center. The six scenes are expertly paced, whether it’s two characters in heated discussion, or eight in a battle royale. Despite the cattiness, the actors find a way to make their characters human, sometimes achingly so. Overbey pulls just the right sympathetic strings, Walton loses her innocence with a cool sting, and we don’t get to see enough of Joyce Cohen as the feared, intelligent headmistress. The one discordant note comes from Dee Pelletier, portraying a proud and absent-minded French teacher, Mademoiselle Vernier. Employing a bad wig and a jokey French accent against the subtle Irish lilt of her co-stars, she at times seems too much a caricature.

Dublin playwright Hazel Ellis is a fascinating find from the crackerjack staff of the Mint, who specialize in staging lost or forgotten works. Having written two well-received plays, she was, as a bio note in the program explains, “seemingly on the verge of a major playwriting career.” But instead, “Ellis stepped behind the closed curtains of domestic life.” The mindset that launched her career was apparently the same as that which brought it to an early end.

Women Without Men – By Hazel Ellis; Directed by Jenn Thompson.

With: Mary Bacon (Miss Strong, Joyce Cohen (Mrs. Newcome, Shannon Harrington (Dorothy), Kate Middleton (Miss Ridgeway), Aedin Moloney (Miss Willoughby), Alexa Shae Niziak (Peggy), Kellie Overbey (Miss Connor), Dee Pelletier (Mlle. Vernier), Beatrice Tulchin (Phyllis), Emily Walton (Miss Wade), Amelia White (Matron),

Sets by Vicki R. Davis; Costumes by Martha Hally; Lights, Traci Klainer Polimeni; Original Music & Sound, Jane Shaw; Production Stage Manager, Kathy Snyder. Presented by The Mint Theater Company at Stage II, New York City Center, 131 W 55th St. http://minttheater.org/buy-tickets/, 212-581-1212. Through March 26. Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.