With plays, as with people, old does not necessarily mean stale. Such is decidedly the case with The Constant Wife, now at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. This drawing-room comedy from 1926 comes across with a lot more bite than most of the trendy but empty fare that's dragged across South Florida stages. It's filled with droll humor, sexual innuendo, and ideas that still startle. Combine these with Malcolm Black's subtle, effective production and what do you get? In the script, author W. Somerset Maugham can't keep from referencing Shakespeare, and neither can I: The Constant Wife is a very palpable hit.
At first sip, this play tastes about as effervescent as flat champagne. It's set in a typical, impossibly spacious drawing room in London's posh Regent's Park district and opens with a typical exposition scene that reveals a typical plot: A prosperous physician, John Middleton, has been cheating on his wife, Constance, with her best friend, Marie-Louise. Constance's sister is scandalized and plans to reveal the romance, but their worldly-wise mother advises restraint. Meanwhile, Constance receives an unexpected visit from Bernard, who proposed to her 15 years ago and loves her still. So far, so boring. But this typicality is part of Maugham's clever series of mousetraps. He's manipulating audience expectations so that each subsequent event brings a surprising snap. As you might expect, Constance discovers what's going on, but when and how and what she does about it make for a play with a lot of laughs and surprising ideas, many of which seem to leap out of contemporary feminist politics.
Amid all the laughs, Maugham tosses a lot of epigrammatic darts, in the manner of Wilde and Swift, his literary models. Much of The Constant Wife still seems bitter and cutting, and its views of heterosexual relationships undoubtedly sprang from Maugham's disastrous relations and sexual confusion. The play seems to take aspects of Maugham's experience and makes a tossed salad of the bits. Like John, Maugham trained as a doctor and had a strained relationship with his wife, Syrie, who divorced him as he continued a long relationship with a man. Like Bernard, Maugham proposed to and was rejected by a woman when he was 29 years old, then went abroad for many years. Maugham's jaundiced view of matrimony and his bleak sense of male fidelity and human nature ruffled many a feather in his day, but his acrid sensibility seems a good fit with the bitter, surly, contemporary scene.
The production is particularly accomplished, and Black's direction is so skillful that it's nearly invisible. The proof of this is in the way the cast makes both comedic and intellectual sense of Maugham's often overly literary dialogue. He was a resourceful, witty writer, but being painfully shy and a stutterer, he was not at heart a man of the theater. While his dialogue is well-crafted, it is no small feat to speak it gracefully, let alone find a pace that keeps the play aloft. Yet Black's actors bat around the clever bon mots as if they were playing a casual game of badminton.
Black is blessed with a luminous performance from Alicia Roper as Constance. Roper, who has soldiered on in several so-so plays at Florida Stage, finally gets a role to run with, and run she does, nearly stealing the show. Her Constance is a glowing, light-filled heroine, neither a foolish optimist nor a damaged victim. When Constance discovers what her philandering husband is up to, she uses the experience for self-discovery and transcendence, and what could be a dreary tale of petty marital revenge rises to examine the function of marriage.
The rest of the cast also fares well, with standouts including Greg Wood as Middleton, the smug antagonist whose comeuppance is more than exposure, and Nancy Dussault as Constance's redoubtable mother in a fine display of comedic timing. Paul Wonsek's traditional drawing-room set, in creams and pastels, is functional and pleasant. Ellis Tillman's witty, inventive jazz age costume designs add considerable wit: While Constance is dressed with classic simplicity, Marie-Louise flounces in and out in a series of outfits that perfectly show how fashion and taste can be mutually exclusive.
The opening-night performance suggested that a bit more time will enhance this production. The first scene tended to drag. Although the British accents were delivered with more precision than most American casts offer, the assertive physicality of some of the women seemed rather de trop for the British upper class, then and now. Speaking of opening night, I would also like to credit the would-be performance artist in row M who could not restrain herself from offering comments and even talking back to the actors in a loud voice. If this impossibly rude narcissist would kindly send me her name, I would be happy to include it among the cast list. Her performance was memorable.
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