Chekhov and Maugham on Broadway.
Issue of 2005-06-27
Posted 2005-06-20


As the always right and very honorable Mrs. Culver in the splendid revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1926 drawing-room comedy “The Constant Wife” (a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre), Lynn Redgrave makes two striking entrances; for each, she wears a dramatic veil. Naturally, after a career of stage, television, and film appearances which spans more than forty years, Redgrave knows something about entrances, exits, and costuming. And she uses that experience, along with her intelligence and imagination, to superb effect here.

When, at the start of the play, we first see Mrs. Culver, sitting in the elegant London drawing room of her older daughter, Constance Middleton (Kate Burton), we know immediately who she is: a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind, and who does so with élan. Unlike Mrs. Culver, however, her self-righteous younger daughter, Martha (Enid Graham), is a teller of truths of the most plebeian kind. For instance, does Mrs. Culver know, Martha asks, that John (Michael Cumpsty), Constance’s doctor husband of fifteen years, is having an affair with Marie-Louise (Kathryn Meisle), Constance’s mate for all things shopping? But Mrs. Culver pays no mind. Before the wheels of gossip can even start turning, she reminds Martha, “Of course, truth is an excellent thing, but before one tells it one should be quite sure that one does so for the advantage of the person who hears it rather than one’s own self-satisfaction.”

Mrs. Culver is not alone in her cleverness. Constance is her near match when it comes to keeping an ironic distance from matters of the heart. Nevertheless, Constance’s decision to condone l’affaire John and Marie-Louise takes even her mother by surprise. It has been many years since she and John were truly in love, Constance explains. She is his wife, and he has supported her, so why should she not support his needs? But that’s not the end of the story—not entirely. It is Constance’s development from wife to independent woman that gives the play its drama, such as it is. “The Constant Wife” is Oscar Wilde lite—“An Ideal Husband” crossed with barely digested suffragist ideology. But no matter. Everything about this production is such a pleasure—from Allen Moyer’s set design and Michael Krass’s costumes to Mark Brokaw’s impeccable direction—that the hackneyed plot and loopy logic barely register. None of it would have worked, of course, if Brokaw hadn’t assembled such an extraordinary cast. Burton and Redgrave bring such verve to their work that one is reminded of what is missing from so many of today’s performances: the ability to play, and to enjoy it.