W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife
American Conservatory Theatre is continuing its 2003 season by presenting W. Somerset Maugham’s 1926 “immoral” play The Constant Wife at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco. This is a witty comedy about marriage, fidelity and gossip. The British and American audiences in the late '20s considered the play risqué because of the double standards by which men and women are judged. The British excelled in drawing room comedy with the likes of Noel Coward, Terrance Rattigan and Somerset Maugham in the period before World War 2. After the war, the “angry young men” of Britain took over the London stage, making those playwrights obsolete. These English drawing room plays are rarely performed now, especially here in America.
I must admit that of the three pre-war playwrights, I find Somerset Maugham’s plays the least enjoyable, maybe because they are primarily plays for women’s sensibilities. I have always enjoyed his novels better than his plays. However, he does have something of Coward’s technique and epigrammatic wit.
Great actresses have played the clever Constance on the American stage. Ethel Barrymore played the role when the play made its American debut in 1926. I saw Katherine Cornell play the wife in 1951 and she was superb in the role. Ingrid Bergman returned to Broadway in the title role in a production directed by John Gielgud which was not a success because the play had gone out of date. The comedy had a revival in London last year with Jenny Seagrove as Constance in a short run at the Lyric Theatre.
The Constant Wife is an acutely accurate portrait of the frivolity of upper class London society in the late 1920s, and all of the action takes place in the elegant art deco drawing room of the eminent and very wealthy surgeon John Middleton of Harley Street. Constance (Ellen Karas) is first seen within her core of friends, which include her mother (Beth Dixon); her future employer, an upscale interior decorator (Stacy Ross); and her sister, Martha (Emily Ackerman). Constance's friends know that her philandering husband John (Jonathan Fried) is having an affair with her best friend Marie-Louise (Ashley West). What her friend doesn't know is that Constance knows of the affair. Constance finds that, although she still loves her husband, she isn’t in love with him, so she decides to rewrite the marital rules accordingly. Her former lover Stephen (Mark Elliot Wilson), whom Constance has not seen in 15 years, enters into the picture and he becomes a main element of the plot. The ending is marvelously ambiguous with a theatrical flair as to who stays “constant.” Most of the comedy marital maneuvers have an Oscar Wilde quality about them; however, the wit is not up to Wilde’s level of quality.
The opening scene with Constance and her friends seems very contrived to modern tastes, and it takes too long to set up the main plot of the play. Also, all of the actresses are chattering away in their Mayfair accents, and some of the conversation becomes muddled. The comedy takes shape with the arrival of John the husband and Marie-Louise the secret lover that everyone knows about. Here, the skilled craftsmanship of Maugham finally comes into play.
Director Kyle Donnelly has attempted to liven up the production by introducing some comedy elements that usually are not in Maugham's plays. She has retained the three acts with two intermissions, adding at the beginning and ending of the each act, brief dances like the Charleston or late '20s dance crazes to old phonograph records of the period. The butler, played by Tom Blair, has a little dance spot at the beginning of the third act. Also, the director has the shapely Ashley West show a bit of flesh in the second act, reminiscent of an old burlesque sketch.
Ensemble acting in this production is well performed on the whole. Ellen Karas, a Chicago actress making her ACT debut, is very good as Constance. She embodies the intelligence and calm self-assurance of the title role. Jonathan Fried, a Los Angeles and New York actor also making his debut with ACT, is excellent as Constance’s husband, although he does tend to overdo his sputtering and muttering outrage at his wife in the third act. His British accent and wonderful theatrical voice are spot on, however. Emily Ackerman is excellent as Constance's dehydrated and secretly envious sister. Mark Elliott Wilson is outstanding as the admirer who is torn between passion and the British gentlemen's code.
Charles Dean makes the most of his one big scene as Marie-Louise's husband. He does a comic turn with an athletic performance that is a parody of a cuckold. It is one of his best performances to date. Ashley West is good as the kittenish blonde bimbo who has a Marilyn Monroe quality about her. The cast is rounded out by Rachel Scott as the maid who has little to do but watch how the “beautiful people” live.
Kate Edmund’s set is done in stunning black and white art deco, looking like something straight out of the roaring twenties. It is plush, with black and white drapes and wall panels and colorful pillows on the white couch. There is also a tall Chinese screen stage right in muted colors that works well with the set. The costumes by Anne R. Oliver are authentic '20s colorful dresses to sexy versions of jazz age flapper gowns.
The Constant Wife runs through Sunday, April 27 at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.