Cosmetics titan Helena Rubinstein gets a play not quite worthy of her legacy
Helena Rubinstein created the modern cosmetics industry. She was ambitious in a time when women’s ambition was frowned upon. She believed in a woman’s empowerment through makeup – that you could wield a lipstick like a weapon and carve out a life for yourself equal to, or at least amongst, men. A Polish Jewish immigrant who settled in New York by way of Australia, she was dedicated to her work, beginning her empire here in the early 1900s.
In other words, she’s a compelling figure in history – which explains why she’s currently the subject of two theatrical works: the new Broadway musical War Paint (where she is played by stage legend Patti LuPone) and Australian writer John Misto’s play Lip Service.
Misto’s play opened in London earlier this year with a different name (in the UK, Lip Service is a lesbian TV relationship drama) and mixed reviews. In its London premiere, Miriam Margolyes starred as Rubinstein. Here, in its Sydney debut, Amanda Muggleton takes on the role – and her performance is at big as the continent. It’s almost glorious: she revels in Rubinstein’s accent, shoots off Yiddish insults with complete and fiery intention, and she stands with imperious expectation. She is the owner of the space. She fills it entirely.
But it isn’t just Rubinstein on stage. The play is built around a dramatised version of her relationship with Patrick O’Higgins (Tim Draxl), her bodyguard/secretary/fixer/surrogate son, and follows the last decade of her life (Margaret Gill’s wardrobe choices are appropriately garish in their embrace of the late 1950s and early 1960s).
She clashes with an unseen Charles Revson (the founder of Revlon) but her best barbs are for her frenemy Elizabeth Arden (a delightfully frank Linden Wilkinson); in actuality, the two probably never met, but here their rivalry is spirited (they bug each other’s offices) and not without fondness (they see themselves as a united force against Revson, a man cashing in on a market that they had successfully developed).
Unfortunately, Lip Service is out of step with its characters’ legacies and with the world around it. Rubinstein was a great philanthropist, but in Misto’s script she appears only miserly (an uncomfortable Jewish stereotype). Much comedy is derived from her malapropisms, as though non-native English speakers deserve ridicule. Nicole Buffoni directs the play with a sense of dignity, especially for Rubinstein and Arden: they are front and centre in each scene, generously lit and given the courtesy of precious time to speak and be considered – to be sure they are heard; but the script cares less about the characters’ dignity than Buffoni does.
The most uncomfortable aspect of Misto’s play is the barrage of offensive jokes passed off as bitchy banter: fat jokes, anti-Semitic jokes, anti-feminist jokes, gay jokes. It’s hard to believe that Lip Service wasn’t written 30 years ago: it has no problem relying on cheap laughs over substance, and it’s in no way a positive and considered look at history. It doesn’t attempt to liberate Rubinstein or Arden or O’Higgins from the denigrating ways they have been viewed in the past, through more socially rigid lenses. Patrick is still ‘just a fairy.’ Arden and Rubinstein are still judged on their looks and their success – or lack of – with men. Their brilliance and resilience isn’t the point of the story; Rubinstein’s role as a struggling mother is the only part of her afforded any depth, and Misto appraises her through the same framework that women have been judged for decades: her role as a mother and a carer.
You get the sense, from all the zingers, that Misto was aiming for an arch, camp look at a diva of the corporate world; however, there’s no irony or defiance, those great hallmarks of camp. It’s a fine line between ‘fond period piece’ and ‘using the period setting as license to feel edgy for using dated slang’, and Misto falls on the latter side of the line.
The play is longer than the advertised running time and perhaps could benefit from an editing eye: several of those offensive jokes could be stripped down to focus better on Rubinstein’s inner life and relationships, and it would be a better play for it. The plot is plodding, and the mid-play conflict, where Patrick appears to abandon Rubinstein, feels forced and artificial.
There’s an interesting tension in the early-’60s rise of second-wave feminism and its view of makeup as oppression juxtaposed with Rubinstein’s proto-feminist take on makeup as self-empowerment – but rather than explore that, this play sees the ‘feminists’ ridiculed, and leaves women’s rights and struggles largely unexamined.
It’s hard to believe this play was written in 2017. This is one for those in seek of a nostalgia fix: a trip back to when it was okay to call gay men fairies; when a character’s homosexuality or ethnicity was fair game for a cheap punchline; and when it was okay to present the feminist rejection of social pressures as merely a shrill overreaction to the patriarchy.