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Stage Review

Gender, class, and clashes in a Parisian literary salon

Sarah Newhouse (left), Bill Mootos, and Lisa Joyce in “The Salonnières.”
Sarah Newhouse (left), Bill Mootos, and Lisa Joyce in “The Salonnières.” Nile Scott Studios

STONEHAM — The scene is Paris before the French Revolution, and an aristocratic young woman named Madeleine de Sauveterre, fresh out of a convent, has been promised in marriage by her debt-ridden father to a duke whom she has never met.

It’s an invidious scenario all around, and as she ponders her dilemma in Liz Duffy Adams’s “The Salonnières,” now at Greater Boston Stage Company in a world-premiere production directed by Weylin Symes, Madeleine (Elainy Mata) starts to feel like staging a revolution of her own.

“My father has power over me. The king has power over me. My husband will have power over me,’’ seethes Madeleine, her state of gilded entrapment underscored by Katheryn Monthei’s elegant, birdcage-like set. “My God, who doesn’t have power over me?’’

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“The Salonnières” rests on a few promising notions: To blend a comedy of manners with a comedy of ideas while illustrating the subversive power of stories and storytelling; to showcase the strength of transgenerational female solidarity in combatting male prerogatives and assumptions that remain persistently unexamined (by men, anyway) even when convulsive political change is on the near horizon; and, perhaps, to frame the sexual politics of the past as a not-so-distant mirror of a gender-based imbalance that lingers in our present.

But “The Salonnières’’ does not quite deliver on that promise, remaining largely content to glide across the surface of the issues it raises. Even at 90 minutes, the play is too prone to unfocused drift, marred by an excess of wasted motion that weakens its punch. Though it could be argued that everyone gets what they want and/or deserve at the end of “The Salonnières,” the denouement rests on a contrived, far-fetched plot gimmick that feels contrary to the spirit of the play.

In her earlier “Or,’’ — a clever simulacrum of a Restoration comedy about pioneering British dramatist Aphra Behn, presented two years ago at Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company and in 2011 at Lyric Stage Company of Boston — Adams demonstrated a knack for verbal fencing matches that flicker, sting, and occasionally draw blood. “The Salonnières” contains only intermittent flashes, however, of that kind of sharp-edged wit.

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Madeleine’s attempt to change the power dynamic that threatens to ruin her life will ultimately involve three other women: Henriette, the Comtesse de Mare (Laura Latreille), the hostess of a literary salon, her hair as disarranged as her speech, always grasping for le mot juste and always finding it just out of reach; Gabrielle, the Marquise D’Aulney (Sarah Newhouse), a writer clad in widow’s black (costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley), newly returned from exile amid rumors she poisoned her brute of a husband, and as fearlessly irreverent as ever; and Henriette’s youthful, independent-minded maid, Francoise (Lisa Joyce).

After the foppishly sinister duke (Bill Mootos) — who is rumored to be a spy for the king and has already buried two wives — shows up to collect his bride-to-be, Henriette, Gabrielle, and Francoise take turns telling fairy tales to which they add pointed, message-sending twists. (The stories are enacted via shadow puppetry skillfully designed and projected by Christine A. Banna.)

Then, all three women take part — albeit in very different ways — in a stratagem designed to get Madeleine out of the unwanted marriage.

The play reunites director Symes with three fine actors — Latreille, Newhouse, and Mootos — who were in the casts of his ambitious productions of Richard Nelson’s “The Apple Family Plays.’’ They all acquit themselves ably in “The Salonnières,” but the play doesn’t tap very deeply into their talents.

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Mata, a recent graduate of Suffolk University, is convincing in conveying Madeleine’s callowness but needs to generate more force in communicating the character’s increasingly large rebellious streak. Joyce, who appeared in Off the Grid Theatre Company’s “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord,’’ endows Francoise with an artful poker face while observing the machinations of the wealthy. It is the maid who, bit by bit, brings considerations of class into the rarefied realm of the aristocrats and into the play — and it is she who makes clear exactly whose side she will be on when the Revolution comes.

The Salonnières

Play by Liz Duffy Adams. Directed by Weylin Symes. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham, through Nov. 11. Tickets $45-$55. 781-279-2200, www.greaterbostonstage.org


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.