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A CurtainUp Review
The Constant Wife by Elyse Sommer
The Constant Wife, Somerset Maugham's comedy of marital manners and mores is the latest Roundabout revival to send us time travelling backward. The time is 1926, the year when the play premiered on Broadway starring Ethel Barrymore and, after a respectable 295-performance run, moved to London. (A 1951 Broadway revival with Katherine Cornell ran for just 138 performances and a 1976 version with Ingrid Bergman lasted a mere 32 performances).
The story unfolds in the elegant drawing room of Constance Middleton (Kate Burton) and her surgeon husband, John (Michael Cumpsty) who appear to have been blissfully married for fifteen years and enjoy their upper crust life style. But there would be no play if the Middletons' charmed life were quite as rosy as it seems, so no sooner does the curtain rise than the truth about their marriage comes to light as Constance's sister Martha (Enid Graham) and her mother (Lynn Redgrave) discuss the pros and cons of telling Constance that John has been having an affair. To make this betrayal doubly shocking as well as socially embarrassing, the other woman is Constance's best friend Marie-Louise (Kathryn Meisle). As the perfect marriage is something of a masquerade, so Constance's unawareness about what's been happening. Despite broad hints from her outraged sister she is insistently and cheerfully blind-eyed about the affair. What's more, when confronted by Mary-Louise's jealous husband (John Ellison Conlee) she saves the day with an alibi for the lovers.
Constance's way of dealing with the affair might bring to mind Ibsen's Nora slamming the door on her life as a sheltered wife -- but she is enough of her practical mother's daughter to opt for a less firmly shut door. Besides, while the novels and short stories for which Maugham is best known were often tragic (for example, Of Human Bondage and Rain), this is a comedy à la Noel Coward and George Bernard Shaw. Though Maugham had enough serious ideas about marriage on his mind to make The Constant Wife tilt towards what Shaw called his "discussion plays," its chief aim is to charm you with its witty dialogue and surprising little twists and turns. And charm it does -- thanks to a cast of experienced vintage comedy drama performers and director Mark Brokaw's wisely refraining from any urge to modernize what's best appreciated as an authentic period piece.
Kate Burton taps into her fine sense for comedy as Constance. Michael Cumpsty brings enough likability to the inconstant husband to avoid the risk of his coming across as either a buffoon or a villain. John Dossett as Bernard Kersal, the still smitten former suitor who conveniently arrives just as the Middleton's marital problems are about to explode, brings a quiet intensity to the role that contrasts perfectly with the more flamboyantly attractive Cumpsty. Lynn Redgrave is a delightfully cynical, status quo endorsing dowager mother. Kathryn Meisle is ideally cast as the ditzy Mary-Louise and John Ellison Conlee makes the most of his short but droll part as her cuckolded husband. To round out the cast there's Enid Graham as the aptly spinsterish sister Martha; the properly stylish Kathleen McNenny, as the career woman friend who offers Constance job which gives her the financial independence to make a clear-eyed decision about her marriage. Finally, there's Dennis Holmes as the very proper butler no British drawing room comedy could be without.
For all the excellent performances, perhaps the real stars of this revival are the designers. Allen Moyer's scrumptious set with its sprightly floral wall paper and green lacquered furniture is as clever as it is stunning -- its subtle old-fashioned eleganes becoming more showy during final act which moves the proceedings a year forward. Michael Krass, an always inventive costume designer, has outdone himself in providing different sumptuous outfits for the actors' every entrance. Lynn Redgrave is especially resplendant in her several post-Victorian style outfits and one of Kathryn Meisle's ensembles features a pink satin coat that symbolizes her role as the forbidden candy that brings out the sweet tooth in men like John. The men too are visions of sartorial splendor.
Theatergoers with a strong taste for nostalgia and lavish staging will forgive the slow spots when the sparkling interchanges lose their fizz and are in danger of being drowned in overly drawn-out discussions. Mr. Brokaw's efforts to enliven those slow spots with a lot of stage business for Kate Burton represent the only missteps in his otherwise finely tuned direction.
Maugham's dialogue isn't quite as quote-studded as Coward's or Shaw's but there are enough bon mots and insights on male and female relations to savor. Some of the best lines come from Redgrave's Mrs. Culver; for example, when her daughter asks, "How does one know one is in love?" she comes back with "Could you use his toothbrush?" She sums up her practical take on the pleasures of marriage with "It's nice to have someone around to tell you you're quite right when you know in your heart you're quite wrong." Her daughter sees her own marriage in equally realistic terms: She treasures the five years of mutual adoration, but is loathe to relinquish her comfortable social life and the day-to-day pleasures of a love that's " like a crossword puzzle where we both hit on the same word at once." Except for wanting to be more financially self-sufficient and grabbing a chance to re-experience a man's utter adoration Constance like so many modern women, is willing to make a few adjustments to the having it all life style formula.
Actually, the entire play is constructed as a play on the word constant -- from the name of its heroine to the underlying theme of marriage as a constant in our lives, but one in which the partners must constantly adapt to changing expectations and situations (including inconstancy). And while this play is probably the most frequently produced of Maugham's fairly large contribution to the stage, it's not been as much a constant presence as similar works within the genre. Given the enthusiasm of the audience at the press matinee I attended, that may well change -- some of the Off and Off-OffBroadway specialists in forgotten play retrievals, are probably rummaging through Maugham's script archive as I post this review.
You might want to check out our London critic's review of another production of the play here, as well as our review of a Los Angeles production of Maugham's The Circle.
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