Playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham posed that delightfully cynical, though undeniably honest, reexamination of love in his most beloved and oft-produced play, The Circle. As the impeccable new production at A.C.T. proves, the playwright's truthful depictions of love and marriage are timeless and as relevant now as they were so many decades ago.
Maugham's plays are deceptively simple, yet remain no easy feat to pull off successfully. The staging, timing, and level of psychology built into each role require true precision. Fortunately, director Mark Lamos has chosen a cast that is up for the task and delivers an interpretation of this heavily nuanced play with the utmost care and carefully placed humor.
Elizabeth Champion-Cheney (Allison Jean White) is 25-years-old, pretty, elegant, and wealthy. She has been married for three years and is already unsatisfied by her bourgeois life and union with up-and-coming politico Arnold Champion-Cheney (James Waterston), an elected British official working tirelessly toward prestige. Elizabeth's growing unhappiness has not escaped Arnold's very good friend, Edward Luton (Craig Marker), a dashing, yet simple businessman who has been invited to spend the week at Arnold and Elizabeth's beautiful countryside home.
Also on the guest list are Lord Hugh Porteous (Ken Ruta) and the notoriously feisty Lady Kitty (played marvelously by Broadway and television veteran Kathleen Widdoes), who is also Arnold's mother. The couple has lived underneath a veil of scandal since they ran off together three decades past.
With only the best of intentions, Elizabeth has invited Kitty and her husband to her home so mother and son can finally be reunited. But Arnold's father, Clive Champion-Cheney (played by the rascally Philip Kerr), shows up unexpectedly -- and trouble and complications ensue.
White manages to dig into her role and pull out the subtle complexities upon which her character is built. Since Arnold is a largely milquetoast character, it is a role that can be greatly underdone. Fortunately, Waterston understands this and brims with dimension especially in the production's final act. Always threatening to steal the show is Ruta as the endlessly crotchety Porteous. He delivers an outstanding comic performance, but also shows his wonderful understanding of the character during a tender scene between him and Kitty in Act III that is so unexpectedly warm that it causes the eyes to go a bit misty.
For all of its melodramatic trappings, at its core, The Circle has a lot to say about the trials and tribulations of love and marriage and much to add to the ever-fruitless debate over whether passion should outstrip practicality. While the show does fall prey to tedium at certain points, due to an overly wordy script, it will nevertheless stay in one's consciousness for a long time after the curtain falls.
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