Of Marital Bondage

The Guthrie dusts off a Somerset Maugham comedy

Novelist W. Somerset Maugham was also a successful playwright in his day--in 1908-'09 he had four hits running simultaneously in London. Recently a mini-revival of his 1926 comedy of mores and manners has seen several American stagings, and this Guthrie production employs a crisp verbal and psychological pace to nice effect, earning laughs while doing justice to the subversive content brewing under the surface.

The play is about fidelity and adultery, and its heart lies with Constance, a doctor's wife who has seen through the illusions and bad faith of her social milieu. Megan Gallagher plays this pivotal role, and in the early going she manages to give the impression that, in the hidden secrets department, she's holding all the high cards. Her husband is cheating on her with the lovely Marie-Louise (Stacia Rice), and just about everyone around her is far more visibly bothered about it than she is.

Let's not allow my affair with your husband ruin our friendship: Stacia Rice and Megan Gallagher in 'The Constant Wife'
T. Charles Erickson
Let's not allow my affair with your husband ruin our friendship: Stacia Rice and Megan Gallagher in 'The Constant Wife'

Patrick Clark's set captures the understated affluence of a period English drawing room, and we quickly come to understand that the vital action is going to comprise shifts in the emotional weather rather than of the physical variety. At one point John (Armand Schultz), Constance's husband, breaks a piece of ornamental dinnerware in a self-conscious parody of ineffectual male rage--it is as though England of the time was so repressed that even an explosion of anger could be rendered only from a distance.

By the arrival of Bernard (Jeff Yagher), an old flame of Constance's, still smitten with her, we have a pretty well-rounded picture of Maugham's male types: a blustering oaf, a cad, and a weak-kneed dullard. The men perform well in their roles, but the show rises and falls with the women's performances. For the most part, it rises.

Rice is adept at portraying a corrupt spirit whose only innocence lies in her belief in her own virtue. Her performance is emblematic of what works about the show. Nearly all those onstage are clueless about their lives and how they live them (less so in the case of Constance's mother, played by Patricia Connolly with terrific cynicism), save for Constance herself. Maugham's scenario gives Gallagher the plum role of being the smartest person in the room, though it also locks her into a smug superiority. Gallagher makes it work with superior timing, for the most part, and a stage presence that anchors things and keeps the thin drama from drifting.

Under John Miller-Stephany's direction, all the characters seem fully realized in a play in which it's easy to imagine them devolving into types. Michelle O'Neill and Charity Jones, as Constance's priggish sister Martha and her American friend Barbara, respectively, engage in brittle sparring matches over matters of moral propriety. O'Neill's character is so charmingly abrasive that a throwaway line about her nature delivered by Connolly (when Martha says she's been having a good time, her mother asks, "For others, or only for yourself?") is one of the biggest laughs of the night.

The play itself is about a full notch below Shaw and Wilde--its main weakness is making Constance lecture a couple of times about gender roles and hollow conventions--but it benefits from its relative unfamiliarity, the ample supply of zingers are delivered here with tautness, and the text all around is allowed to breathe when it needs to. While the program indicated there were to be two intermissions--perhaps turning a semi-light diversion into a mini-marathon--on opening night a single intermission sufficed. It seems a wise move. The work plunges a toe into the deep black waters of how we are to live with one another as romantic partners, but it wisely pulls back before we are doused with potential despair. The satisfying ending, containing the only note of sentimentality of the night, leaves us pleasantly buffeted, satisfyingly diverted, and no less confused about how to work the alchemy of our own domestic relations.

 
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