Theresa Rebeck’s play Spike Heels, exploring issues of love, gender roles, sex, and sexual harassment, did not receive great reviews when it was initially produced but has since been produced to acclaim all over the country. When the play was first staged in New York in 1992, Rebeck was already known in the New York theatre world for her one-act plays, but Spike Heels was her biggest success to date.
In the world of contemporary American theatre, the most important city is New York. Although many plays have their initial productions in small theatres around the country, it is not until they are produced in New York that they are taken seriously. And as befits New York’s central place in theatre, the theatre critics for the city’s most influential daily newspaper, the New York Times, have become America’s leading theatre critics. Frank Rich, at that time the paper’s head critic, could make or break a play by his review.
Rich attended the 1992 staging of Spike Heels, starring Kevin Bacon, and was unimpressed. He saw the play as a modernization of the ‘‘glossy Hollywood comedies of the unabashedly sexist 1950s’’ in which the men, not the women, are ‘‘virgins and tramps. The idea is wicked and promising.’’ But, Rich felt, ‘‘the play is a letdown.’’ Rich found the dialogue excessively profane, writing that ‘‘the lines that are not funny frequently try to get by on scatological bombast.’’ The play was too heavyhanded, he continues: ‘‘When really stuck, the playwright takes to pounding in her points. There is too much talk about how men view women as property, or want to be in control of every situation, or try to pass themselves off as sensitive even as they are being manipulative.’’
When the play was staged the following year in Boston, the Globe’s critic Louise Kennedy was similarly unimpressed, but for different reasons. The play’s cardinal sin, for Kennedy, is that for a comedy, it just is not funny. ‘‘It just isn’t any fun,’’ she gripes. ‘‘Every character . . . is unbelievably annoying. The actors are not well-served by the script’s ridiculous plot twists and implausible shifts in character.’’ Kennedy also felt that in this ostensibly feminist-minded play, Rebeck undermined her own feminist principles. ‘‘Maybe it’s hysterical to have a woman threatened with rape by her boss, then turn around and go out to dinner with him to make his best friend jealous, then declare her love for the best friend, then have a fleeting bonding session with the friend’s fiancée, then windup going back to the harassing snake. If it really does sound fun to you, go anyway—maybe you can tell me what I’m missing.’’
Similarly negative was Alvin Klein, who reviewed a Stamford, Connecticut, production in the New York Times in 1993. ‘‘In case the audience doesn’t figure out that Spike Heels is a contemporary, multicultural Pygmalion knockoff, don’t worry; one is bopped over the head with that allusion. There is more he says-she says attitudinizing here than an organized forum on the gender wars can accommodate, but hardly enough wit, balance, sense of craft or coherence to sustain a play.’’ Klein also disliked what he saw as the ultimately antifeminist contradiction of the play, writing that Georgie’s success at the end is really a ‘‘Pyrrhic victory . . . back to square one.’’
Later reviewers in other cities were more enthusiastic. Reviewing the Victory Theatre’s production of Spike Heels in Burbank, California, Madeleine Shaner of Backstage wrote that the ‘‘delightfully fresh play is like a sip of sparkling champagne after a steady diet of city water . . . funny, touching, crazy, unpredictable, and as insightful as it is entertaining.’’ In 1994, Nelson Pressley of the Washington Times compared the play with Shaw’s Pygmalion, calling it ‘‘Shavian with blue language’’ and praising the play’s ‘‘wry characters and nervy, earthy dialogue.’’ ‘‘Miss Rebeck is a writer to watch,’’ he concludes.