“War Paint”

Susan Granger’s review of “War Paint” (Nederlander Theatre)

 

Alphabetically, it’s Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein. Now, if none of these names is familiar to you, this should not be your Broadway destination.

But if you’re eager to see two dueling divas conquer the cosmetics industry. Run to the box-office.

Their story began in the mid-1930s, when women realized that a freshly scrubbed face could be chemically enhanced, giving birth to the cosmetics industry.

In Manhattan, Elizabeth Arden’s “Red Door” warmly welcomed sophisticated socialites, as genteel Miss Arden, a Canadian WASP, dispensed eternal youth in pretty, pristine, rose-petal pink packages that, admittedly, cost more than the lotions they contained.

But then formidable Helena Rubenstein, a heavily-accented Polish Jew, returned from Europe with her own innovative, scientifically formulated rejuvenation creams.

Both were determined that American women should put their “Best Face Forward.”

A bitter rivalry ensued, as Ms. Arden’s ambitious, marketing-savvy husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), transferred his allegiance to Ms. Rubenstein, while Ms. Rubenstein’s gay right-hand man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), duplicitously delivered her secret ingredients to Ms. Arden’s laboratory.

After deliberately avoiding meeting one another, yet leading parallel lives with posh salons only a few blocks from one another on Fifth Avenue, both beauty entrepreneurs ruefully confess what they’ve sacrificed to achieve success – in “If I’d Been a Man.”

And they come to realize that savvy new competitors, like glitzy Charles Revson (Erik Liberman), are crowding their extravagantly expensive products off the shelves. Looking back, Ms. Rubenstein once noted, “With Arden’s packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world.”

Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s dual biography that became a PBS documentary, it’s created by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), and artfully staged by Michael Greif with Catherine Zuber’s chic period costumes, David Korins’ artful set, and Kenneth Posner’s flattering lighting.

But the character-driven concept is only skin deep, something one realizes only at the conclusion when both ferociously competitive makeup mavens thoughtfully question: “Did we make women free-er? Or did we enslave them?” One only wishes they’d pursued this pertinent dilemma a bit further.

“War Paint” is currently playing at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street.