Janet Burroway's previous novels, "The Buzzards" (1969) and "Raw Silk" (1977) are ranked among the best of "women's fiction" and were nominated respectively for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Despite Burroway's dry humor and her lively understanding of marital discontents, neither title received the wide readership it deserved. The author may well get her due with "Opening Nights," a dazzling black comedy about the "intricate empathy" between Shaara Soole, the first wife of director Boyd Soole, and his second wife, Wendy.
The wives are drawn together by a strange mix of loyalty, condescension and fear they both feel toward the brilliant, ambitious Boyd. Like the earlier novels, "Opening Nights" takes an original feminist slant on marriage between professionals, but Burroway's wit stays within striking distance of commonplace follies. Even her most ordinary characters are capable of unusual panache and introspection, gifts that enable them to overcome the confusions of courtship, the sometimes cold comfort between parents and teen-agers and the idiocy of mistaking professionalism for personal dignity.
At first glance, the turning points in Shaara Soole's life look like a connect-the-dots portrait of the liberated woman. Shaara's graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama led to a successful career as an off-Broadway costume designer, then marriage to an off-off-Broadway and regional director, Boyd Soole. The long-distance marriage wavered and resulted in a friendly divorce after 10 years. Shaara became a theater professor at Magoor, a backwoods Georgia college, in order to support her son Kevin.
Four years later, frizz-haired, scatty Shaara senses that her independence, for what it's worth, doesn't quite add up to a feminist portfolio of life-crisis management: "You get used to the way things are. You put a Band-Aid on a bloody scrape, you bury a dog. You apply a one-night stand to a divorce, a bottle of Jim Beam to the one-night stand, and an Alka-Seltzer Gold to the hangover. Life is a long accident, and most accidents occur at home." Shaara looks back on a curriculum vitae of accidents, the lot of women who don't seem as protectable as Boyd's new wife: slender, young, affluent Wendy Soole.
When the novel opens, Boyd has accepted a commission to direct the inaugural production at Magoor's new, state-funded theater. Boyd fantasizes that the show will lead him to a new career in film -- Burt Reynolds is scheduled to shower his celebrity on Magoor's opening night. Furthermore, the weeks of rehearsal will give him time with his son.
Although Shaara, as usual, tries "to keep her essential foolishness in check," her expectations for opening night are more unrealistic than Boyd's. She's grateful that it will signal the end of her final professional and parental collaboration with Boyd, yet it's also her chance to meet Wendy, to learn more about the second wife for whom she feels a curious affinity and concern.
Thanks to Burroway's fluent plotting, Shaara's "essential foolishness" reverberates throughout the book. A somewhat sinister comedy of manners begins on the first day of rehearsals, when Boyd's entourage of veteran actors makes its first rattles of offended vanity. Boyd has cast a sought-after starlet, a well-known film villain and an old Irish pro in a surrealistic play about transvestite nuns. At night, the actors become castaways in the equally surreal wasteland of Hubbard, Ga. Boyd, depressed by Kevin's coldness, neglects the cast and grows preoccupied with his father's suicide.
Meanwhile, Shaara snips and cuts at costumes and tries to conceal from Boyd her affair with Eugene, the stage designer -- a warm, capable man who also happens to be a Georgia "cracker" -- a choice Boyd might disapprove.
The most essential, purest fool of all is Wendy, a timid ingenue who has been left pregnant and penniless in Boyd's New York apartment. As the bills and the dishes pile up, Wendy decides that her stake of independence from her stodgy Boston background will require more than marriage to a middle-aged director.
Wendy miscarries her child and starts a spree of giddy misadventures, including jewel smuggling, an affair and calming a psychotic hijacker. By the time she and Shaara meet, their mutual fascination seems like a mirage, or perhaps a token of their renewed ability to express their true selves in love and work.
Burroway's supple style can be direct and raunchy, and at times it brims with rueful grace. Like John Updike, she can eke out the poisonous beauty of suburban routine: "Everything flourished willy-nilly in this neighborhood in the summer wet, children and the bacteria in their middle ears; pinworm, ringworm, impetigo; iron oaks and the wisteria that choked them, roses and the aphids gnawing at their leaves." A few of her pungent axioms, however, are dead on arrival at the page: "rub a couple of guilts together, they'll burst into blame."
"Opening Nights" is a comedy based on astute observations; not the least of them is the impression that the women's movement has created more ominous silences between men and women than open conflicts. Wendy and Shaara Soole break the silence at last -- a breakage that is not accidental -- and what they have to say is both mordantly funny and wise.