Virginia Kull and Jack Gilpin in The Breadwinner
(Photo © Theresa Squire)
Virginia Kull and Jack Gilpin in The Breadwinner
(Photo © Theresa Squire)
Men who abandon their wives and children aren't usually viewed sympathetically; they're talked about endlessly in psychotherapy sessions and called names not printable on a family website. Yet W. Somerset Maugham invites not only understanding but celebration for the defecting Charles Battle in his 1931 dramedy The Breadwinner.

Maugham's initial tactic in making the rich man's departure laudable is to present his children, Patrick (Joe Delafield) and Judy (Virginia Kull), as a pair of self-centered adolescents. They are challenged in superficiality only by their chums Timothy (David Standish) and Diana (Margaret Laney); indeed, the opening chatter among these "bright" young things would be cause enough for anyone to agree with the decision that Charles (Jack Gilpin) has made. Maugham does such a sly job of showing how tedious privileged youngsters can become that the audience may feel the urge to evaporate before Charles does.

But the fed-up pater isn't just out of sorts with his offspring. He also sees clearly that wife Margery (Alicia Roper) no longer loves him and hasn't for some time. When she attempts to tell him that she does love him, he informs her in no uncertain terms why it's not true. Maugham has already confirmed this earlier, when Margery describes her unexciting marriage to her good friend Dorothy (Jennifer Van Dyck), who has a rousing pro-marital infidelity speech prepared for just such occasions.

For these reasons, as well as others, Charles is ready to settle on his wife and children 15,000 of the 20,000 pounds he's retained after a financial disaster. As he says to Margery in matter-of-fact fashion, "I could go on quite quietly until the end of my life doing what I'd done every day for the last twelve years....Suddenly it seemed to me that, for me, ruin meant life and liberty." Later on he adds, "Do you really think that I'm called upon to go on working indefinitely in order not to provide my wife and children with the necessities of existence, but with luxuries they can very well do without?"

Charles Battle's plan of action might be shocking to some people even today, but it isn't unprecedented in Maugham's fictive world. In his novels more than his plays, the author repeatedly depicts the cost of doing the expected thing (such as Philip does in the semi-autobiographical Of Human Bondage) and the gallantry of attempting the unconventional (look at The Razor's Edge and The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham's version of Paul Gauguin's journeys). Maugham's canon was, of course, a reflection of his life. Trained as a doctor, he could have done what Charles Battle did for 12 years and followed the course planned for him. He didn't, instead becoming a writer who spent much of his time refusing to put down roots by traveling the world. Those compulsive jaunts furnished inspiration for his often praised novels, plays, and short stories.

The Breadwinner is simply another example of Maugham's cheering on the iconoclast; it might just as well have been called The Inconstant Husband and ballyhooed as a companion piece to The Constant Wife. Yet it seems a by-the-numbers treatment. Starting things off with those tiresome (and very recognizable kids), Maugham seems to be suggesting that he's basing the play around them. But once Charles arrives with his news, the piece becomes about that character's leave-takings. Along the straight and narrow way, Maugham leaves out of Charles's goodbye scenes a parting with son Patrick, and the sparks that the haughty lad would undoubtedly ignite when differing with his dad are missed.

Keen Company artistic director Carl Forsman has given this work his usual intelligent production with the aid of his usual designers: Nathan Heverin, who has built an austere English drawing-room; Theresa Squire, who has found appropriate 1930s garb; lighting designer Josh Bradford and sound designer Sam Doerr, both of whom do their duties well.

Moreover, the company lives up to its name with keen performances, although the four young players initially have trouble differentiating the callowness of the characters they're playing from callow acting. As Charles, the always reliable Gilpin is mostly required to exhibit resolve, and he does so flawlessly. Margery calls for more colors, and Roper provides them. Dorothy is a deceptively tame maverick, and Jennifer Van Dyck is convincing in the amusing role, while Robert Emmet Lunney puts a lot of kick into Charles's wound-up pal Alfred. The cast's efforts aren't in the service of top-notch Maugham, but they and this nearly forgotten play are welcome all the same.