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The Constant Wife

David Finkle enjoys Mark Brokaw's production of W. Somerset Maugham's forward-looking comedy about marital infidelity.

Kate Burton, Michael Cumpsty, Lynn Redgrave,
and John Dossett in The Constant Wife
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Hats off to director Mark Brokaw for his extraordinarily well-done production of W. Somerset Maugham's 1926 comedy The Constant Wife -- and that praise extends to the lovely hats and period dresses that Michael Krass has put on the play's high-society ladies.

Here is a piece that was forward-looking about marital infidelity in its own time and still strikes us as having an advanced attitude. At first glance, Maugham's work appears no less frilly than the Chinoiserie abounding upon Allen Moyer's gorgeous set. But no: The Constant Wife is grounded in the prolific author's unconventional code of ethics, one that he hoped would shake up English upper-class behavior as much as Oscar Wilde did in his era and G.B. Shaw in his.

John Middleton (Michael Cumpsty) is having an affair with Marie-Louise Durham (Kathryn Meisle) and most everyone who knows about it wants to alert John's wife and Marie-Louise's best friend Constance Middleton (Kate Burton). That includes Constance's practical sister Martha (Enid Graham); her close friend Barbara Fawcett (Kathleen McNenny); and Marie-Louise's outraged husband, Mortimer (John Ellison Conlee). Standing to benefit from the revelation is Bernard Kersal (John Dossett), Constance's one-time suitor, who is still feeling intense pangs of love for the lady. Indeed, the only person who wants to keep the affair a secret is Constance's proper mother, Mrs. Culver (Lynn Redgrave).

The unexpected twist that Maugham throws into this state of affairs comes as the kind of surprise that disorients the participants and delights audiences; but to say what this popular man of 20th-century letters has up his sleeve would dampen the surprise, so there will be no such report here. Let's just say that Constance is one of the characters to whom Maugham attributes the sort of enlightenment he thought the world could use more of. Although she makes a relatively late entrance, and only after being established as deserving great sympathy, Constance is wise enough to triumph over her circumstances. She definitely belongs among those literary figures who register as precursors of modern-day feminism.

The action of the three-act play, performed here with one intermission, is set place in the Middleton drawing room over the course of two weeks in one year and one late afternoon a year later. The characters come and go with their intentions sometimes expressed, sometimes suppressed. Everyone does great deal of talking, but it's such smart banter -- even if some of the characters are less witty than others -- that it makes for enjoyable listening. Several tangy Maugham epigram are lofted; "Frankness is the pose of the moment," Constance says at one point, and this is a play full of appealing poseurs.

Mark Brokaw has rarely been associated with this kind of arch property, yet he establishes a sparkling tone for the proceedings. He has the players present their characters as well-bred Londoners (Deborah Hecht is the dialect coach) but gets as close as possible to sending up their affect without ever stepping over the line to outright spoof. It's a delicate balance that he achieves. The first among equals in the marvelous cast is Kate Burton, who's giving her best-ever performance as Constance. Looking and sounding ultra-smart as she darts around a room that could have been decorated by Colefax & Fowler, she delivers every speech with a twinkle in her eye, a pep in her step, and full command of the bon mot. Lynn Redgrave does her inimitable stuff as Mrs. Culver, particularly well in the early minutes of the piece, when she's handed a string of subtly hilarious observations to make.

Michael Cumpsty is a husband who blusters when blustering is called for and blushes when blushing is called for. The actor's erstwhile Democracy cohort John Dossett is solid and immensely likeable as Kersal. Huzzahs also to Kathryn Meisle, Enid Graham, John Ellison Conlee (wearing burgundy spats), Kathleen McNenny, and, in the role of an always agreeable butler, Denis Holmes.

At one point in the play, Constance says, "I think most married couples tell each other far too much." No one will ever accuse the central figures in The Constant Wife of being laconic, but in this well-nigh sublime production, their verbosity is highly entertaining.

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