Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

American Conservatory Theatre presents a Sparkling Production of W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle

Also see Richard's review of Strangers We Know

Kathleen Widdoes and
Allison Jean White

The American Conservatory Theatre opens 2007 with the rarely seen The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham. The playwright's most popular comedy is a wise and droll satire concerning marriage, disloyalty and the battle between passion and practically. The National Theatre poll lists the lampoon as one of the 100 best plays of the twentieth century. The Circle was first seen at the Haymarket in London in 1921 where it shocked the staid British audiences about the conflict between romance and loyalty to one's partner.

The Circle has been rarely performed since the 1950s, when the plays of "angry young men" such as John Osborne, John Braine and Alan Sillitoe took over the British stage in "realistic" dramas of post-war Britain. These down-to-earth playwrights made Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan obsolete.

This marks the third time I have seen this fascinating play. I first saw The Circle at the Chichester Festival Theatre with British film legends Googie Withers and John McCallum during the late 1990s. I also saw the impressive revival in New York with Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns and Steward Granger at the Ambassador in 1989. It has always been one of my favorite plays.

Tony-nominated director Mark Lamos is helming a "ripping good" production with a splendid cast of actors in this daring attack on the institution of marriage. The set of the drawing room of Aston-Adey, Arnold Champion-Cheney's house in Dorset, England in 1920 is elegant, with French doors you would expect to open to someone asking, "Tennis anyone?". The dialogue is full of smart, urbane, sophisticated lines that might be considered a little dated but still fun to hear.

The Circle is an elegant and hilarious social satire with a severe central situation that is explored by the playwright's characteristic shrewd understanding of human nature. The central plot centers around Edward Luton (Craig Marker), a free-wheeling planter from the Malaysian States who is visiting Elizabeth Champion-Cheney (Allison Jean White) and her prissy politico husband of three years, Arnold Champion-Cheney (James Waterston) for the weekend. Elizabeth plans to run away with the young man since she does not love her husband. She sees romance and adventure with this young, good looking planter from Asia. She says "Romance is such an elusive thing. You read it in books, but it's seldom you see it face to face. I can't help if it thrills me." When her staid, stiff upper lip husband, who seems more interested in his Georgian furniture, learns of the seduction he says, "I'm painfully aware that the husband in these cases is not a romantic object."

The Circle refers not to the social grouping of young and older persons in this country house for the weekend, but to the cycle of events that are portrayed in the three-act stylish comedy of manners. The antics of the young people take second place to the frolics of their elders who steal each scene when they appear on stage.

Thirty years after Clive Champion-Cheney's (Philip Kerr) wife Lady Catherine (Kathleen Widdoes) ran off with his best friend Lord Porteous (Ken Ruta), she returns to the house now occupied by his son who is a Member of Parliament. At this exact moment, Elizabeth is contemplating running off with the handsome Edward. Catherine looks like a painted, disheveled wreck who constantly thinks she is still young, even with tinted red hair. She has in tow, sputtering and grumpy Lord Porteous who probably was dashing when they ran off. As she tells the younger Elizabeth in a wonderful tête-à-tête in the third act, there has been shame and suffering in her life since she ran away but you must "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." She explains that changes will occur after decades of being together. Many persons are bound together by principles and practicality rather than legal ties. However, as Mr. Maugham reminds us, this is a world in which rationale and responsibility seldom prevail.

Marc Lamos's direction is skillfully paced. He draws out the inundated poetry in Maugham's writing. Every detail of this intriguing play is beautifully presented by an outstanding cast with spot-on English accents. Kathleen Widdoes (The Rose Tattoo, Broadway's Hamlet, The Importance of Being Earnest and Much Ado About Nothing, for which she received a Tony nomination) gives a consummate performance as Lady "Kitty." She captures a woman desperate to perpetuate the image of herself as a lively and effervescent person, but one can see that she is just fooling herself. Ken Ruda (The Voysey Inheritance) gives a superb performance as the cantankerous Lord Porteous. Both Widdoes and Ruda fashion the wit and sympathetic high points of the production

Craig Marker (The Marriage of Figaro, Brooklyn Boy, making his first appearance on the A.C.T. stage) is charmingly incompetent in the romantic mess with Allison Jean White (A.C.T. core member) who is delightful in the role of the loveless wife. Philip Kerr (appeared in six Broadway productions) is marvelous as the sardonic, cunning Clive. He has the best lines of the play, which are marvelously droll. James Waterston (Peter Hall's production of Importance of Being Earnest and many New York productions) is excellent as the prig Arnold who should have been an interior decorator since he is always fussing about a Georgian chair. Rounding out the cast in small roles are Tom Blair as the butler and Trish Mulholland as the housekeeper. Both are effective in their roles.

John Arnone's set is a gorgeous English countryside manor with large French windows center stage going out to a lovely English garden. Candice Donnelly's costumes are svelte. She has expertly coifed and dressed Lady Kitty in a bit too unnatural red with the right edge of garishness. The outfit would be better suited to a young Roaring '20s flapper. Lighting by York Kennedy gives a feeling of a bright English countryside summer day.

The Circle runs through February 4th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are available by calling 415-749-2228 or online at

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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