Marsha Mason and Paxton Whitehead in The Circle
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Marsha Mason and Paxton Whitehead in The Circle
(© T. Charles Erickson)
In an era when a play with a supposedly unprintable name can ascend to Broadway, is there still room for a 90-year-old drawing room comedy in which a character gets flak for saying "damn"? In the case of The Circle, by W. Somerset Maugham, now being given a first-rate production at the Westport Country Playhouse under Nicholas Martin's direction, the answer is yes. Hell yes, in fact.

Maugham's subject matter -- a high-profile infidelity and its destructive aftermath -- might seem antiquated, but as today's headlines attest, the fallout from such rifts hasn't changed all that radically in the ensuing century. What also still rings true in The Circle are the inequities, emotional as well as financial, that hobbled the women of Maugham's generation and continue to haunt the romantically adventurous to this day.

Elizabeth Champion-Cheney (Gretchen Hall) is the free-spirited trophy wife of promising politician Arnold Champion-Cheney (the tight-lipped Marc Vietor), who appears far more preoccupied with the legs of a putative Sheraton chair than with the tennis-toned gams of his lovely young mate. At 35, Arnold is a fussbudget, still carrying the scars of his abandonment some 30 years earlier by his mother, Lady Catherine (Marsha Mason).

Elizabeth, hoping to engineer a reconciliation (while answering some inchoate urge of her own), has invited Catherine and her paramour, Lord Porteous (John Horton) to visit the Champion-Cheney estate in Dorset (sunnily summoned by Alexander Dodge). On the surface, Arnold's wronged father (Paxton Whitehead, easing elegantly in a role that fits him like a doeskin glove) appears to take this development in stride.

A far cry from the chastened, elderly sylph whom Elizabeth imagined, Mason's Catherine -- red-haired, rouged, and quite dependent on her latest accoutrement, a "lip-stick" -- hefts her avoirdupois about in a series of increasingly garish outfits (fashioned by designer Gabriel Berry). She also displays a rather vulgar streak, along with a laughable vanity and a tendency to snipe at her equally quarrelsome love match.

Moreover, it becomes clear that the reason Elizabeth wanted to witness what she presumes to be a case of real-life devotion is that her tennis partner Edward (Bryce Pinkham, brimming with youthful passion) has somewhat higher aspirations. Will they -- should they -- bolt? We hear arguments pro and con, packed with Wildean epigrams, from all parties concerned.

While The Circle is sure to resonate with the silver-haired crowd, who remember all too well the strictures of yesteryear, it should prove no less germane -- and amusing -- for a younger generation facing a world of seemingly infinite choices.