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Sugan's 'Women' is amusing and unsettling

Whether Marie Jones's ''Women on the Verge of HRT" -- that's short for hormone replacement therapy -- strikes you as amusing or unsettling will probably hinge on whether you're among the titular demographic: women entering, or navigating, the throes of menopause. The 1995 play, which is receiving its New England premiere from the Sugan Theatre Company after successful runs in London and New York, clearly aims for a bit of both effects, and after a slow start, it succeeds.

In the play, two Irishwomen -- married Anna (Carmel O'Reilly, looking alternately wistful and cowed) and embittered divorcee Vera (Judy McIntyre, feisty to the finish) -- go to the Donegal coast for an escapist weekend at a hotel owned by Anna's idol, crooner Daniel O'Donnell.

''Women on the Verge" opens with a by-now familiar, semicomic litany of woes (hot flashes, crying jags), and the characters do at times burst into song. But this is no ''Menopause: The Musical." Though the first act promises little more than sitcom superficiality, the second turns magical-realist, digging deeper and unearthing some disturbing truths. These may seem especially germane to feminist baby boomers, who, having long ago cast off traditional wifely roles in favor of full and equal lives, are now coming up hard against a brutal fact of human biology: the diminution, with age, of their status as subjects of sexual objectification (the very outrage they spent their youths protesting). The male gaze tends to glide right by, leaving older women -- as Anna and Vera complain -- feeling ''invisible."

We first meet Anna mooning over O'Donnell, who is seen on video, delivering a smarmy ballad about ''old-fashioned love." The use of video (an audio rendition would suffice) is mistake No. 1: Where's the interest in watching someone watch TV? Director Robert Scanlan and designer J. Michael Griggs further deaden the action by centering the entire layout of the hotel room on the TV screen: The beds face away from the audience, so that later, when Anna and Vera are interacting or Vera is flirting with the waiter (Derry Woodhouse) who delivers their drinks, we're often left with just a head-top view.

The hotel trappings are stripped away for Act Two, which is set on a seaside bluff. The waiter turns shape-shifting shaman, enabling the two women to confront the problematic figures in their lives, including -- but not limited to -- Vera's smugly remarried husband and his 25-year-old wife, who brags about her strategic advantage: ''I'll always be the younger one." We've been given to believe that, in contrast to Vera and her desperate search for a fresh source of love before her ''sell-by date," Anna is fairly content with her lot, but all is not as it seems. Her little ditty, ''Leave Me as I Am" (''Don't shatter my dreams -- handle with care . . . They keep me safe from the stale gray air"), will just about break your heart.

There's a homey, perhaps intentionally amateurish feel to this production: The singing is rough, and the actors make no pretense of a polished vocal delivery. But they dive into their roles with conviction and vividly bring to life the torment of women consigned to the ''sexual scrap heap." The closing anthem, in which Vera and Anna gleefully resolve to ''sin, sin, sin," is absurdly glib and ill serves the serious questions raised. Plenty of aging women have found other means to stay ''visible," at least in the public sphere. It's the private cost that's rarely explored, and this play represents a provocative start.

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