Some of the most notorious first ladies of the 20th century are back - this time on stage off-Broadway. The new play, The Ladies, imagines a series of conversations between four women who came to prominence through powerful husbands.

The Ladies loosely explores the lives of Elena Ceausescu, wife of the Romanian dictator, Jiang Qing, better known as Madame Mao, Argentina's Eva Peron, and Philippine dictator Fernando Marcos's wife, Imelda, the only one still living.

The topic seemed like a natural to director Ann Kaufman, who had previously worked on plays about Romania and the Ceausescus. Annie Kaufman says she is fascinated by women in power and how they got there.

"Looking into these women's backgrounds, it occurred to me that there were a lot of similarities in terms of growing up in a rural area and coming to the big city, attaching themselves to hugely powerful men," she said. "So I began to wonder what the conditions under which these women - where did these women overlap and why?"

Ms. Kaufman approached playwright Anne Washburn with the idea. Ms. Washburn had also worked on a play about Romania and another one about the Philippines.

"I love terrifying women so I was interested immediately," she said. "Then I thought the idea of dealing with all four of the women at once was a really interesting challenge. You can't go into very great detail with them so it became an interesting challenge of how to talk about these four very strong personalities who had a great deal to do with their countries' histories without turning into a campy review."

The writer and director tried to find ways to include the four women in a script that would not focus on their biographies. They taped their conversations about their research and ideas for the play over a three-year period.

"Annie brought in the first tapes, transcribed. We looked at it and we thought it was ? hilarious. Because we thought that we were having very intelligent conversations," she explained. "We felt very focused. We felt like we were delving into many things."

The tapes unexpectedly presented Ms. Washburn with a way to structure the story. Two actresses representing the director and playwright sit on stage discussing the play as the actors playing the four women rehearse their roles.

The play-within-a-play explores the relationship between the writer and director. And, Annie Kaufman says, it takes the discussion of women and power one step further.

"Our relationship when we first met each other was much more tentative," she admitted. "What is also interesting about these transcripts is charting our rapport. Anne always says that part of what this play is about is how women jockey for power."

In this scene, the actress playing Imelda Marcos strolls across the stage singing as the writer and director discuss the play's progress.

Washburn: They are a play each and I mean Madame Mao is really a miniseries. I mean can you imagine? Kaufman: I really think it is important that Imelda is the only one actually alive. Kaufman: Are we sure she is still alive? Washburn: She is still alive, definitely Kaufman: Okay good, because I have not seen her in the news lately.

Washburn: But they are in Hell, right? I mean that is where you put famous historical figures when you want them to sit around and chat, right?

Kaufman: Um, we can put them in Limbo.

By the end of the developing process, playwright Anne Washburn says she felt sorry for the four first ladies. But director Kaufman says she began by admiring all four for their gumption in times and places that were not open to women and, despite heinous actions, her admiration remained.

The writer and director hope that women outside of New York will have the opportunity to see the play and make their own judgments.