Christine Ebersole, Mary Ernster, and Patti LuPone Credit: Joan Marcus

“The truth is never in good taste.”

—War Paint

Cosmetics pioneers Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were formidable women who battled long, long odds to reach the top of their profession. They were also ruthless hucksters, possessed of an Ayn Randian sense of entitlement, whose lying machinations endangered the very people they were supposed to be serving.

Sound like any stories you’ve been hearing lately? Maybe some having to do with a certain female presidential candidate?

Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s 2003 double biography and getting its world premiere now at Goodman Theatre, War Paint wears our paradoxical, Hillary-saturated zeitgeist like a Park Avenue matron wears a pore-opening mudpack. Yet the three creators of this new musical about the rivalry between Rubinstein and Arden (playwright Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie, known for their previous collaboration on Grey Gardens) seem hesitant to own the implications. Perhaps out of excessive deference to the current political culture—or possibly just in hopes of retaining our sympathy for the central characters—they attempt to evade their narrative even as they engage it.

Which is too bad, because that narrative is pretty fascinating.

Elizabeth Arden started life in 1878 as a Canadian named Florence Nightingale Graham. A quick apprenticeship followed by a failed partnership brought her into the beauty business in New York, where she developed what even now remains the well-known iconography of the Elizabeth Arden brand: red-doored spas, boxes tied with nylon bows, pink everything, and exquisitely designed containers (in the show, a reluctantly appreciative Rubinstein calls one Arden jar a “tiny kiss made of clay”). Meanwhile, Helena (nee Chaja) Rubinstein was busy turning her Polish Jewish self into the “Marie Curie of mascara” so as to escape the fate she foresaw if she didn’t get a fortune of her own: “barefoot in Gdansk, widow to a butcher twice my age.” Establishing herself first in Europe, Rubinstein sought to conquer the U.S. with a shtick involving the science of rejuvenation.

Both Woodhead’s book and Wright, Frankel, and Korie’s stage adaptation concentrate on the titanic feud between these sisters from different mothers—so alike in their outsider status, their lust for success, their broken marriages, and their mercantile cunning that they couldn’t help but hate each other. They fought it out in a universe they’d essentially invented, built on a gospel of exclusivity and elitism they shared, until they were challenged in their turn (yet another resonance out of the zeitgeist) by populist upstarts like Charles Revson and Estée Lauder. Referring to their dinosaurlike inability to respond to those challenges, someone dubs them “Epidermis Rex.”

Throughout, we’re made privy to the most appalling chicanery. Bits of it are so absurd you can’t help but laugh, as when an early song-and-dance number—one of several neatly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli—shows Arden’s treatment girls sending 600 volts through metal masks and into the faces of enthusiastic customers. (“I am first to plug women into wall,” insists the ever-quotable Rubinstein.) But there’s no lighter side to formulas whose ingredients include lead, and not much of a defense against the two doyennes’ culpability in creating the culture of never-ending youth, which has devolved further over the decades into our culture of outright regression.

Or, for that matter, against the charge that they practiced all their depredations against members of their own sex. War Paint directly addresses the issue only in its final moments, when Arden and Rubinstein—elderly now and thrown together unexpectedly—have occasion to wonder whether their companies make women “freer or help enslave them.” Though the answer they give is interesting in its starkness, the question surfaces far too late. It should’ve come up in act one. I’ve even got a good spot for it: during a number called “If I’d Been a Man,” in which the authors use a feminist argument speciously, to give the impression that Arden and Rubinstein were victims of sexism when the whole show until then and afterward is dedicated to demonstrating how they expressly bypassed traditionally male industrial strongholds, acted with all the remorselessness of male empire builders, and succeeded fabulously if not happily.

But then the function of “If I’d Been a Man” isn’t to get at a truth about our protagonists. As far as I can tell, it’s meant to soften them up some so they don’t come across as complete monsters. A really damning representation of Rubinstein and Arden would first of all be seen as politically backward, and, second, offer the show’s stars no opportunity to ingratiate themselves. Those stars are big too: Christine Ebersole as Arden, looking like Pat Nixon in Catherine Zuber’s costumes and David Brian Brown’s hair designs, and Patti LuPone, resembling nothing so much as a Baltic Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as Rubinstein. The two of them are absorbing to watch, marvelous to hear: true, unspun divas.  v