New York City Theater
"The Constant Wife"
Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre
Roundabout Theatre Company, consistent with its mandate to bring back early works of significance and mount them handsomely, now offers Somerset Maugham’s “The Constant Wife.”
This stylish production, under Mark Brokaw’s direction, proves just how durable and how appealing Maugham’s works are, in the proper hands. In fact, this 1926 piece, with its strong feminist message, was far ahead of its time. It may be that the ‘20s was a time to strike a blow for women’s liberation, but it would have to wait some 50 years to be truly implemented. Meanwhile, one can imagine how shocking Maugham’s ideas, in the mouth of its heroine, might have been in that period—though they are old hat to us today.
“The Constant Wife” deals with an upper-class British wife who discovers her husband’s adultery and, unfazed, goes on to an independent life of her own. She is offered an opportunity to become an interior designer, and succeeds beyond her expectations, to her smug husband’s dismay. She makes the point that economic independence is the key to a woman’s freedom. Gutsiness, good sense, honesty, and a total lack of sentimentality become her modus operandi. She is indeed a proper successor to the Nora of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” taking the battle of the sexes to the next step. Surrounded by family and friends who represent the conventional viewpoint (the sanctity of marriage, the wife’s proper role, and so on), the heroine Constance manages to become her own person, financially and emotionally liberated.
In less competent hands, “The Constant Wife” could become talky and slow-paced, but not under Brokaw’s sure direction. He keeps it zipping along, as Maugham’s witty dialogue and unexpected lines come tumbling out. Moreover, Kate Burton comes into her own as the formidable heroine. Burton, decked out in Michael Krass’s dazzling costumes, gives a radiant performance and has total command of the stage. It is her play all the way. But her fellow performers measure up to Burton’s level of work. In a smaller, but important, role as Constance’s mother, Lynn Redgrave is memorable, as is Michael Cumpsty as the beleaguered husband. And Kathryn Meisle is delicious as the empty-headed blonde who thinks nothing of seducing her best friend’s husband.
In short, this Roundabout production never misses a beat, taking us back to a time and to a playwright well worth revisiting.
-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 10, 2005