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The amazing thing about Maugham's The Constant Wife, a
comedy of manners that premiered in 1926, is how very little it has dated over the
succeeding eight decades. Comedy gets away with saying things through its tongue-in-cheek
attitude, things that might not be as easily tolerated in serious drama. The Constant
Wife expressed a feminist viewpoint well before the upsurge of contemporary feminism
and the play's essentially Marxist view of marriage, expressed by the eponymous character,
likely would have seemed radical at the time, if not couched in a degree of irony. Despite
all the late 20th century liberation, so many things have changed so little all these
years later that The Constant Wife remains thoroughly valid and timely.
Constance (Ellen Karas) has been married for some years to John Middleton (Jonathan Fried), a successful physician. Everyone seems to be aware that John is having an affair with Marie-Louise Durham (Ashley West) and they are all concerned for Constance. But Constance (except for one unguarded moment) seems unconcerned over her husband's dalliance. Marriage is an economic arrangement, she posits, pointing out that in the working classes, the wife pays for her keep by keeping house and raising children. But amongst the wealthy, she continues, there is paid staff to maintain the household and mind the children, so the wife earns her keep by being the playmate of her husband. If he chooses to fool around elsewhere, that's his prerogative, she says, and so long as she is financially dependent upon him, she will be faithful while accepting his extramarital dalliances.
The consequences of this viewpoint are utterly scandalous to Constance's mother (Beth Dixon) who articulates the classic double standard. And Marie-Louise, who is Constance's best friend, as well as her husband's mistress, veers in the opposite direction--she has one affair after another behind her husband's back, even as she milks him for wildly expensive gifts of jewelry.
The humor of the play turns on Constance's unruffled acceptance (indeed, her co-conspiring) over her husband's affair, where the other characters expect, according to prevailing norms, that she will be devastated. As well, in the long tradition of drawing-room comedy, laughs are drawn from who knows what and who doesn't.
Constance, too, has a love interest, Bernard (Mark Elliot Wilson) an old boy friend whose proposal she turned down years before. He's been living in China and, now visiting in London, has re-declared his love to Constance. Constance keeps him at arm's length, true to her principles, but she also finds a solution for her own happiness consistent with those scruples. The result, of course, is poetic justice in which she gets the upper hand (had she ever lost it?) and John is, as it were, hoist on his own petard.
Maugham's play is beautifully constructed, it's three acts logically split between exposition, development and resolution. His dialogue is literate and witty and efficiently sketches in and individualizes the principal characters. As Constance, Karas is the very essence of reason. She has a small voice, but her articulation is of such skill that every line resounds with clarity as well as intelligence. In lesser hands (credit here, too, director Kyle Donnelly) Constance could become shrill or overbearing, but here she charms with the precisely appropriate tone of slightly bemused and totally civilized confidence. Fried conveys the philandering husband with a certain innocence and blusters amusingly when the tables are turned.
Kate Edmunds' elegant art deco setting is cleverly altered from act to act through simple changes of accessories. Colors go from cool black and white in the first act to red in the third--along with the introduction of Chinese motifs, parallel to Constance's growing interest in Bernard. Donnelly adds a fillip of amusing period tone with moments of Charleston and Fox Trot. ACT has resurrected a somewhat neglected classic comedy and given it a first-class revival.
April 3, 2003 - Arthur Lazere