The Constant Wife

Different Stages has put together a production of Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife, which makes for an elegant, enjoyable, urbane evening of theatre

Arts Review

The Constant Wife

The Vortex, through July 14

W. Somerset Maugham has the strange ability, unique to his oeuvre, to write entertainingly, engagingly, and yet thoroughly unconvincingly about relations of the heart between men and women. His masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, contains one of the most unlikely and improbable passions in literature, that of the sensitive, intellectual Philip Carey for a pallid, banal tea-shop waitress, and to the end, the liaison remains mystifying, incomprehensible, unexplained. The Constant Wife contains an equally unlikely premise and a similar irresolution.

Constance Middleton is a lively beauty of 36, who, upon discovering that her husband is having an affair with her best friend, receives the news with remarkable imperturbability. Even going so far as to assist the adulterers in deceiving the friend's outraged husband, she sees nothing in the situation to contradict her cheerily rational, if slightly bizarre, theory of marriage: that once passion has died, the two parties owe each other nothing but affection and that a woman who is financially maintained by her husband has no right to also insist upon his fidelity. Preserving this unflappable equanimity, she takes a job and a lover, asserting her freedom, financial and otherwise, with the expectation that everyone view her actions with a similar sensible straightforwardness.

This being distinctly British comedy of manners, brilliantly acerbic and filled to bursting with arch aphorisms, comparisons with Oscar Wilde naturally spring to mind. And in some of Maugham's best dialogue, the comparison is apt. But whereas Wilde writes with an instinctive understanding of human nature and employs his razor-sharp epigrams to deftly lay bare its workings, Maugham rather gives the impression of creating a vision of the human heart to suit his epigrams. As the blithe image of a perfect modern wife, Constance utters pronouncements that are novel, entertaining, and terribly clever. As a character, however, her motivations are doubtful and remain obscure. Without that understanding, that essential sympathy, the relentless exchange of bons mots can, at times, ring flat, the cynicism a shade brutal.

This in no way spoils the pleasure of listening to two hours of excoriating wit. Different Stages has put together a production that is a pleasure to the eyes and ears. The excellent ensemble cast, clad in Marann Faget's chic period designs, tosses the sparkling dialogue back and forth with an easy confidence and wonderfully articulate diction, the accents consistent, the intonation charming. Emily Erington's Constance swings between resolute disingenuousness and a sly sophistication, and the interplay is entertaining, if occasionally baffling. Eric Porter, as her philandering husband, responds to her staggering composure with a bluff, good-humored incredulousness that the audience can't help but identify with and which contrasts nicely to the amusing and subtle characterization that Michael Hankin brings to Constance's erstwhile suitor. As Constance's spinster sister, Martha, Michelle Goodson-Burnett has a wonderfully authentic vintage look and tart edge, and as their mother, Melanie Dean supplies an appropriately mordant gravitas.

Norman Blumensaadt keeps things moving sprightly, and the only flaw in his otherwise well-thought-out, efficient direction is an inclination to have the actors turn their backs to the audience. This effort to have the characters move more naturally around a set that is almost in the round, with spectators on two sides, is negated by the frustration of watching choice lines and important reactions delivered by performers facing squarely upstage. A touch of artifice can be overlooked, but a witty rejoinder really works much better from a mouth rather than the back of a neck.

The Constant Wife makes for an elegant, enjoyable, urbane evening of theatre – not just for those fond of sophisticated British comedy. For anyone who prefers his philosophy of life served up with a lancet edge, Maugham admirably delivers.

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The Constant Wife, Somerset Maugham, Different Stages, Norman Blumensaadt, Emily Erington, Eric Porter

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