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Too Many Husbands

Maugham's post-World War I marital mix-up is a quirky gem of a comedy

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., July 8, 2011

Arts Review

Too Many Husbands

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282

www.main.org/diffstages

Through July 16

Running time: 3 hr.

Too Many Husbands is a quirky gem of a play. Victoria finds herself in the unintentional position of having two living husbands: one current husband and one newly returned war hero whom everyone had believed to be dead. The job of figuring out what to do isn't easy, and watching this trio try to solve the problem is an amusing way to spend an evening.

What's quirky about this W. Somerset Maugham play is how the light comedy encompasses the overwhelming tragedy that England faced at the end of the First World War. Even well-to-do families like Victoria's faced shortages of food and fuel; several jokes in the play mock Victoria for insisting that her bedroom be one of the only two rooms in the house that is heated. A throwaway mention of influenza draws nothing more than a quick gasp from other characters, but the play is set in November 1918, in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic. World War I also caused a shortage of husbands in England, making Victoria's casual thoughts of grabbing one husband after another a bit like Marie Antoinette's deciding that another round of truffles would be sufficient, at least for now. The nonverbal responses of the servant characters to Victoria's behavior in Different Stages' production is one of the very nice ways that these details are present without detracting from the comedy.

The play rides on the comic timing of the accidental triangle: Victoria (Martina Ohlhauser); her first husband, William (Brian Villalobos); and her second husband, Freddie (Joe Hartman). Fortunately, the three actors play with and against one another well, and it's clear what fun they have had in creating this performance together. Also, one of the greatest pleasures of attending Austin theatre frequently is the chance to catch a performer in a role in which she or he takes new steps forward as an actor. Ohlhauser has grown from playing smaller background parts to filling the lead role, and she does so capably and with a lack of self-awareness that is crucial for the part of Victoria.

The opening night performance was enjoyable, but not all aspects of the production were in place. The first of the two intermissions saw a fair bit of puzzling from crew and assorted cast members as they tried to get the wall paneling to stay up, and overall the set appeared unfinished. How much of that was due to Elaine Jacobs' design and how much was the result of a rushed tech rehearsal, I don't know. Hopefully, further performances have helped the company get all parts nailed into place.

My final qualm is one that only arises after one has stopped laughing at the plight of these three characters, in particular the two husbands who, as the play progresses, begin wondering if they actually want to have anything to do with Victoria after all. Victoria has had two children, one by each husband. As each man plots his way out of his marriage, there doesn't appear to be any regret over abandoning the children. In fact, the script begins to seem like a gay male fantasy from the pre-Stonewall days: Disguise a narrative of triumphant escape from traditional matrimony and domestic responsibilities in a far-fetched comedy that leaves two men allied against an array of social conventions.

These are thoughts that creep up in the space after a show has ended, of course. Opening night saw an audience that enjoyed themselves greatly, and Different Stages has created an overall solid production of an unusual and entertaining comedy.

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