Fifty-five years ago, Clare Boothe (the Luce change came later) wrote a sensational comedy about a collection of gossipy, back-biting, high-society New York women. It was called "The Women" and some of the spiciest, vitriolic conversations occur in the fancy powder room of a posh Manhattan night club, where they've gathered to gossip, eavesdrop and generally stab each other in the back.

In 1936, it was scandalously shocking. Today it would be considered an amusing period piece.Salt Lake playwright Aden Ross has taken the same basic premise - several women congregating and crossing paths in a ladies' room - and given it a contemporary twist. For her new comedy, oddly enough called "Ladies' Room," the setting is the powder room at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Ross' characters are based on the kind of cross-section of females that might cross paths in the gambling mecca.

I can't vouch for Ross' new comedy being as high-toned and sophisticated as "The Women," but knowing Aden Ross - and she is one of my favorite playwrights - it's a sure bet she'll take a decidedly more realistic tack. When it comes to writing, Ross is as honest as she is prolific. She's not afraid to tackle some issues she feels strongly about - treatment of minorities (dealt with in "Rings," presented last year as part of Salt Lake Acting Company's annual Free Spring Reading series), and racial and religious tolerance, which are among the focal points in "Ladies' Room." Now, I'm no expert on what goes on behind the hallowed doors of rooms marked "WOMEN." When I was in high school in the mid-'50s, I was employed at the Orpheum and Idaho theaters in Twin Falls, Idaho. Sometimes, when I was helping the janitors with their tasks after hours, I had a rare opportunity to compare the differences between the rooms marked MEN and WOMEN.

I could chalk it up to being just a naive teenager, but I always wondered why the women had this plush, roomy annex with couches, overstuffed chairs, and an entire wall of mirrors where they could sit and powder their noses. Especially in a movie theater, where it's dark inside and who cares?

Some 30-plus years later I am the father of three daughters who could LIVE in the bathroom if I let them, but I do have a little more understanding of why men's rooms are designed for efficiency, while women's rooms are almost a self-contained social center.

Which brings us back to Aden Ross' "Ladies' Room."

"A long time ago," Ross told us in a recent interview, "I wrote a play called `Billy the Kid,' which had an all-male cast. Then I thought I should write a play with only women, but it wasn't until I drove through Las Vegas, and I was in the women's room at Circus-Circus, that it occurred to me that this was the very place where you could confront a mix of every kind of woman in the world of relationships."

To Ross, Las Vegas epitomizes the country's cultural debris, America's existential sewer. It's a town she really doesn't care for at all - but, at the same time, it's a city where you can see, at practically any given moment, a broad cross-section representing nearly every cultural and ethnic example in the socioeconomic spectrum.

Downtown's Glitter Gulch and the famous Strip are, together, the West's version of Times Square. Sophisticated ladies dripping with diamonds and furs rub shoulders with Middle American housewives, call girls and bag ladies.

In "Ladies' Room," there are six women. The play focuses on two in particular - Pat and Chris.

Pat is a Protestant chaplain and a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. She's not in Vegas to play around. She's stuck there because her car has broken down. At the other end of the philosophical scale is Chris, a blackjack dealer who represents everything Pat holds in utmost contempt. The acerbic Chris espouses atheism and is a lesbian. Both women are also very ethical and intelligent - but they instantly loathe each other.

Entering the ladies' room - and the fray - are four other women: an overweight Oklahoman who has fled from her husband and family to marry a 20-year-old; a typical Vegas-style bimbo/goddess, who is every man's dream and every woman's nightmare; the distraught wife of a compulsive gambler (this woman is also the arch co-dependent, who is always making excuses for her husband's addiction), and Leona, the ladies' room attendant, whom Ross describes as a maternal and genuinely spiritual woman. Leona doesn't hurt anyone, but she's been hurt herself and keeps coming back for more.

Ross feels that "Ladies' Room" has a deeply ethical and pro-religious message. While it's a comedy, it also has a serious side. It addresses the `academic vs. religion' attack and lets religion respond, and it manages to be both philosophical and funny.

"This is why I had to pull these two women (Pat and Chris) as far apart as possible, so that Chris represents everything Pat loathes.

"Ladies' Room" is also peopled with some obvious stereotypes, but Ross says she's merely asking if you can stereotype someone on the basis of their religion, their sexual orientation, their employment, or their socioeconomic status.

"This play is a call for toleration in all of these things and it's also about making choices and taking responsibility for our own choices instead of trying to place the blame elsewhere," said Ross.

"In a world of meaningless glitz and existential garbage, can people embrace other's viewpoints, build unlikely friendships and, just possibly, save each other?" she asks.

Ross wrote "Ladies' Room" in 1988. Between then and now, she's written three other full-length works: "Rings," about a Hispanic maid being accused - wrongfully, it is eventually learned - of stealing a valuable piece of jewelry from her employer; "K-mille," about Camille Claudell, and a play written on commission for possible production next season by Salt Lake Acting Company. This latter play is about the Bronte sisters, with the working title of "Replay: The Brontes." One of these last two plays will most likely be part of SLAC's Free Spring Reading series.

"Ladies' Room" was performed last October by the Portland Womens' Theatre Company, a storefront theater in the Broadway district of Portland, Ore., where it enjoyed a successful run.

Another of Ross' plays, "Feet," which was recently presented as part of TheatreWorks West's "Utah Shorts," an evening of 10-minute original plays by Utah writers, has also been produced at the Perry Street Theatre in New York City.

- PLAYDATES: "Ladies' Room" is being presented by the Dance Theatre Coalition in the Art Barn, 54 Finch Lane (on University Street between South Temple and 1st South). Performances will be Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., from Jan. 30 through Feb. 10. On Sunday, Feb. 3, Ross will host a post-play discussion.

Barb Gandy is directing the show. Her cast includes Vicki Pugmire, Mary Bishop, Charla Brinkpeter, Kate Garland, Teresa Sanderson and LuAnn Smith.

Tickets are $7 for adults and $4 for students (with valid I.D.) and senior citizens. Seating is not reserved. For further information, call 364-1219.