Michael Lamont
Whitney Pastorek
February 11, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Female of the Species

Current Status
In Season
run date
Annette Bening
Randall Arney
Joanna Murray-Smith

We gave it an C+

On paper, the conceit of The Female of the Species (which just opened at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse) is clever: Celebrity feminist writer Margot Mason (Annette Bening) is confronted in her home by Molly (Nurse Jackie‘s wonderful Merritt Wever), a former student and self-described homicidal maniac who claims Mason’s contradicting dogmas ruined her life. In practice, however, Joanna Murray-Smith’s farcical script — loosely based on a real-life incident involving British writer Germaine Greer — works better as an academic exercise than a dramatic one. As Molly waves a pistol and flings lines from Mason’s books like daggers, more archetypal figures join the fray: Mason’s daughter, Tess (Mireille Enos), arrives in hysterics, exhausted by raising her children; Tess’s juvenile hedge-fund manager husband, Brian (David Arquette), spouts impossibly sensitive commentary peppered with cheery malapropisms; and a virile cab driver, Frank (Josh Stamberg), turns up under circumstances that are both too random and complex to explain. Bening spends most of the play handcuffed to a desk. The pistol changes hands several times.

Murray-Smith has a breezy way with one-liners (”I know I’m old,” yells Mason at one point. ”I remember when a Brazilian was a person!”) and exhibits a knack for hammering various theories on feminism, gender politics, and motherhood into workable dialogue. But plot mechanics aren’t really her thing. The actors do an admirable job of finding the humanity underneath all the fulminating — especially Enos, whose rant on the mysteries of Pokemon summons genuine compassion — but Randall Arney’s direction sets the volume at such a frenzied, histrionic wail that, after a while, a little gun violence doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. After all, it’s hard to invest in a story when intellectual grandstanding replaces character development. And if the punchline of Female‘s ending is any indication, even Murray-Smith seems to agree. C+

(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000)

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