Fleur Alys Dobbins, Laura Bozzone and Judith Hawking in ‘The Fight.’ (Photo: Michael Abrams via The Broadway Blog)
By Lindsay B Davis
A visit to the Storm Theatre’s website says its latest production, playwright Jonathan Leaf’s full-length drama The Fight, asks the question, “What is feminism?” If this were really the central inquiry, which it is not, it may want to include more voices. In actuality, it is She Said vs. She Said between women’s movement icons Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem reimagined here as fictional, intellectual divas gone wild.
Set in the 1990s, the action begins with sprightly, notebook-clutching grad student Caitlin Schultz (an earnest Laura Bozzone) working on a doctoral thesis she hopes will be the launchpad for a groundbreaking book on the women’s movement. Schultz bursts into the study of legendary Doris Margolies (the character based on Betty Friedan played by a thumping, mumu-clad Judith Hawking) and we soon learn that to get her book advance, she is investigating one potentially juicy event: the National Women’s Political Caucus elections of 1971 in Houston, which may have been rigged against Margolies. She refers to herself as “cheated” and eager to reveal the “skeletons in the closet” albeit through her junior Schultz, since “enough people already consider me a bitch.”
This plot point is likely inspired by Friedan’s own accounts of the election (it is alluded to in her book It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement). Leaf, who is also a journalist, attests to doing a robust amount of research and interviews for this piece.
Meanwhile, the alleged culprit strikes a graceful silhouette at a dimly lit desk downstage. It is Phyllis Steinberg (Gloria Steinem recreated with little-girl-lost-then-empowered muster by Fleur Alys Dobbins) who Schultz is also interviewing for her thesis and a potential book deal. We fast learn Steinberg’s style is to fight fire with effusive self-regard and evade questions that could assassinate her character under the guise it would hurt the movement. Will Schultz be able to penetrate Steinberg’s guard? Whose side is Schutz, or is she an objective observer?
Through flashbacks to actions and events from the late 60s through the 80s, Doris and Phyllis each tell their own versions of herstory and share antagonistic feelings about each other to Schultz, who negotiates the divisive dance between the two women and also finds her way as an interlocuter.
Steinberg’s and Margolies’s character trajectories are further fleshed out in scenes with supporting players (Mark J Quiles and Matthew Provenza in multiple roles) about momentous events of their professional and personal lives (such as Steinberg’s abortion or Margolies’s rejection by a male suitor who could not handle her success).
I should mention now that the device of interweaving fictional characters based on real historical figures with references to real life events of debatable veracity and actually people (Bella Abzug, Jane Fonda and Peter Jennings get shoutouts) is mildly irritating. Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique is referred to as The Modern Sphinx, Steinem’s Ms Magazine as Woman (her 1986 book about Marilyn Monroe swapped for one about Rita Hayworth), and perhaps most egregiously, Steinem’s maxim, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” as “Women need men like armadillos need tap dancing lessons.” A small part of me died when I heard that (nothing against armadillos).
To my knowledge, neither Friedan nor Steinem have been together in fictional form before The Fight so this production may be a bold first. It comes with a disclaimer “any similarity to any other persons living or dead is strictly coincidental” but that strikes this reviewer as #fakenews and any student of women’s history will feel the same. Margolies’s opinion of how Steinberg rose to fame (that she was an influential social climber with an actor’s charm who knew how to work a room) first and became a feminist only in 1969 after needing an abortion denies a chunk of Steinem’s early career — for instance, she wrote a political column for New York Magazine starting in 1968 and had significantly more intellectual heft from the get-go than this play suggests. Then there are insinuations of Steinem’s CIA affiliations and a supposed rape involving a United Nations official that she was complicit in keeping out of the public eye. All this in fictionalized form that in this telling feels more evocative of a 1980s TV soap (Dallas and Dynasty come to mind).
Through some borderline sexually tense moments between Margolies and Schultz (subtext, we see you), it is implied that Margolies is a closeted lesbian though Peter Dobbins’s direction seems unsure of whether to run that plot line. Where there could be humor, there is instead a slightly predatory vibe. It is almost campy. When the big reveals come out in the final few scenes, they do not feel earned, in part because both Steinberg and Margolies become less appealing as the play progresses, and Schultz lacks the tenacity of a reporter driving at the truth.
44 Grand Street, NYC
Through November 18
Lindsay B Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.