The Beauty Mys­tique

El­iz­a­beth Ar­den faces off against He­lena Ru­bin­stein in the Broad­way­bound mu­si­cal.

Forward Magazine - - News - By Ju­lia M. Klein

For decades, the two great 20th- cen­tury ti­tans of cos­met­ics, El­iz­a­beth Ar­den and He­lena Ru­bin­stein, feuded, com­pet­ing for beauty, hege­mony and celebrity; ex­press­ing mu­tual dis­dain, and pur­loin­ing each other’s ideas and em­ploy­ees. At one point, Ru­bin­stein even hired Ar­den’s ex- hus­band, Tommy Lewis, both a charm­ing phi­lan­derer and a gifted sales­man.

But what if, for all their dif­fer­ences, these two lonely, pow­er­ful, du­el­ing women had rec­og­nized how much they had in com­mon?

This is the fic­tional con­ceit that an­i­mates “War Paint,” a Broad­way-bound mu­si­cal that de­buted at Chicago’s Good­man The­atre and stars two Tony Award-win­ning ti­tans of the stage. In its cur­rent in­car­na­tion, the show, di­rected by Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Nor­mal,” “Grey Gar­dens”), is un­even and ul­ti­mately un­sat­is­fy­ing, but gor­geously de­signed and in­fre­quently dull.

“War Paint” is buoyed by the charisma of Patti LuPone, who plays Ru­bin­stein with a comic verve that stops just short of car­i­ca­ture. As the Pol­ish emi­gre born into an Or­tho­dox Jewish fam­ily in Krakow, Poland, LuPone boasts a some­times im­pen­e­tra­ble East­ern Euro­pean ac­cent. But she man­ages to brand her­self as a beauty sci­en­tist (“the Marie Curie of mas­cara”) and be­comes a col­lec­tor and model for the world’s lead­ing mod­ernist artists. “There are no ugly women,” she de­clares, “only lazy ones.”

LuPone is matched by Chris­tine Eber­sole por­tray­ing the some­what more deco­rous El­iz­a­beth Ar­den, known for her high-end pack­ag­ing, up­scale ap­peal and red-door sa­lons. A Cana­dian farmer’s daugh­ter with So­cial Regis­ter as­pi­ra­tions and a devo­tion to horses, Ar­den, like Ru­bin­stein, could be im­pe­ri­ous and stub­born to a fault. Eber­sole’s Ar­den bares her soul in one of the show’s dra­matic peaks, “Pink,” a song ex­press­ing her am­biva­lence about the color that de­fined her.

Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play­wright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife,” “Grey Gar­dens”), along with com­poser Scott Frankel and lyri­cist Michael Korie (who also col­lab­o­rated on “Grey Gar­dens”), drew their in­spi­ra­tion from Lindy Wood­head’s dual bi­og­ra­phy, “War Paint” and from Ann Carol Gross­man and Arnie Reis­man’s 2007 doc­u­men­tary, “The Pow­der & the Glory.”

Wood­head’s ti­tle plays on both a pop­u­lar metaphor for makeup and the two women’s bat­tles for supremacy. In the mu­si­cal, it also clev­erly serves as the name of a song de­pict­ing their adap­ta­tions to World War II, from the sub­sti­tu­tion of syn­thet­ics to the in­tro­duc­tion of an El­iz­a­beth Ar­den lip­stick dubbed Mon­tezuma Red and He­lena Ru­bin­stein’s cam­ou­flage con­cealer.

To read Wood­head’s deeply re­searched but ram­bling book is to ap­pre­ci­ate the craft with which Wright, Frankel and Korie have at once dis­tilled and elab­o­rated on the story of these two dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties. Be­yond de­lin­eat­ing their feud, the mu­si­cal, which runs from the late 1930s to early 1960s, cov­ers their evo­lu­tion from skin-care specialists to creators of com­pet­ing cos­met­ics lines, their strug­gles with fed­eral reg­u­la­tors, their per­sonal tra­vails and their slow­ness to rec­og­nize the power of tele­vi­sion and more down­scale — and younger — con­sumers.

This short­sight­ed­ness helped fuel the rise of mass­mar­ket com­peti­tors such as the “lean, hun­gry” Charles Rev­son (a men­ac­ing Erik Liber­man), who be­gan Revlon with an ar­ray of nail pol­ish. The sec­ond-act num­ber “Fire and Ice,” fea­tur­ing red­caped Revlon mod­els in shim­mer­ing silver gowns and Christo­pher Gat­telli’s chore­og­ra­phy, sup­plies a rare in­stance of siz­zle. An­other high­light is the duet “Di­nosaurs,” in which Lewis (the mag­netic John Dos­sett) and Harry Flem­ing (Dou­glas Sills), a gay mar­ket­ing guru who also has worked for both women, team up for a com­bi­na­tion buddy song and comedic vale­dic­tory.

So what’s miss­ing? At times, de­spite the women’s large per­son­al­i­ties and un­usual suc­cess sto­ries, it seems that the stakes are sim­ply too low. “War Paint” ges­tures at some larger themes — from the im­pacts of anti-Semitism and so­cial snob­bery to the per­ils of be­ing women in a man’s world and the com­pli­cated legacy of the cos­met­ics in­dus­try — but fails to de­velop them suf­fi­ciently. Only near the end, in a song lyric, does it ex­plic­itly raise the vexed ques­tion of whether makeup has helped to en­slave women or to lib­er­ate them.

The mu­si­cal be­gins, too slowly, with sev­eral ex­pos­i­tory scenes. Among them is Ru­bin­stein’s solo ar­rival in the United States, af­ter hav­ing made her start in Europe and Aus­tralia. Her first hus­band, Ed­ward Ti­tus, who al­ter­nately ob­sessed and dis­gusted her, mer­its only pass­ing men­tion and never ap­pears on­stage. Ru­bin­stein’s af­fa­ble and much younger sec­ond hus­band, the in­spi­ra­tion for a line of prod­ucts mar­keted to men, is omit­ted en­tirely.

“War Paint” does make some hay of Ar­den’s in­ter­est­ingly em­bat­tled re­la­tion­ship with Lewis, de­tailed in the song “A Work­ing Mar­riage.” But it skips over her brief and heart­break­ing sec­ond mar­riage.

In some ways, “War Paint” bor­rows, per­haps un­wit­tingly, from an un­likely source: Friedrich Schiller’s clas­sic 19th-cen­tury-verse play “Mary Stuart,” about the ri­valry be­tween Queen El­iz­a­beth I of Eng­land and her cousin Mary Stuart, queen of Scot­land and an as­pi­rant to the English throne.

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