Hollywood actresses often complain that there are no roles for them, which may be why we have a steady stream working on Broadway. Given their hunger for meaty parts, it's strange that we don't get annual revivals of Somerset Maugham's 1926 "The Constant Wife," done here for the first time in 30 years.
The play goes well beyond the confines of what we consider "drawing-room comedy." It is stimulating as well as enormously entertaining.
Its title role is a gem, and, under Mark Brokaw's splendid direction, Kate Burton performs it dazzlingly.
Constance knows that her husband is having an affair with her closest friend, Mary-Louise. But because Constance is so shrewd and witty (her turns of speech suggest she spent her youth reading Wilde and Shaw), she turns the situation completely to her own advantage, confounding everyone around her.
She amuses us not just with her caustic tongue but in the inventive ways she turns the "rules" intended to confine her into pretexts for her liberation.
Burton gives Constance an airy elegance, as if she's viewing everything from some Olympian perch. When people are stunned by her actions, she treats them charitably, as if deeply aware that mere humans can barely appreciate her.
Fortune also seems to be her ally. An old beau turns up who gives her a chance for revenge, which, as anyone with a refined palate knows, is always best served cold.
Part of the play's charm is that neither of Constance's betrayers comes across as a villain. Michael Cumpsty has an engaging frothiness as her husband. Kathryn Meisle makes Mary-Louise an alluring flibbertigibbet.
Lynn Redgrave is absolutely delicious as Constance's propriety-ridden mother, and Enid Graham makes the malice of her nasty sister oddly fetching.
As the unexpected beau, John Dossett has an irresistible innocence. John Ellison Conlee has a droll turn as Mary-Louise's indignant husband, and Denis Holmes is a perfect butler.
Allen Moyer's stylish set conjures up the sophistication of London in the '20s, as do Michael Krass' costumes.
Marriage, adultery, divorce and the working wife: The extraordinary thing about W. Somerset Maugham's 1926 comedy "The Constant Wife" is its topicality.
As the philosopher said, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."
So it is with Maugham's sparkling comedy of ill manners, a new staging of which the Roundabout Theatre Company opened last night at the American Airlines Theater.
Last produced on Broadway in 1975, with Ingrid Bergman, it sparkled but seemed old-fashioned: champagne of a possibly dangerously old vintage. Now it's been given an adroit new bottling by Mark Brokaw.
The cleverly ironic story, set in London's roaring '20s, has John Middleton (Michael Cumpsty) a philandering London surgeon, cheating on his wife, Constance (Kate Burton), with her best friend, Marie-Louise (Kathryn Meisle).
Everyone - especially her acidulated sister Martha (Enid Graham) and flamboyantly Edwardian mother, Mrs. Culver (Lynn Redgrave) - wants to tell Constance that her cad of a husband is at it again.
But Constance doesn't wish to know.
Indeed, when Marie-Louise's rich and stupid husband, Mortimer (John Ellison Conlee), breaks in brandishing John's cigarette case found in his wife's bed, Constance resourcefully provides the errant lovers with an alibi.
Of course, Constance has a few tricks up her own chic sleeve.
These include the prospect of a profitable job in interior decorating, and a dull but still serviceable old beau, Bernard (John Dossett).
From such simple materials, Maugham constructs a cynical version of lbsen's "A Doll's House": By insisting that the framework of such a marriage is rooted in economics rather than love, Maugham was striking a blow for proto-feminism in a Britain where women had only recently won the right to vote.
The play's style is somewhere between a tamer Wilde and a timider Coward. It's what used to be called a "wellmade play," and today, when so many plays resemble an unmade bed, such craftsmanship is itself entrancing.
Brokaw's production -saddled with a Chinoiserie decor by Allen Moyer as ugly as it is unlikely - is deft and clever.
It is smart enough to bring the play home, despite ghastly overacting from Cumpsty, an all-too-stolid Dossett and a frantic Conlee.
Redgrave plays Mrs. Culver as a Lady Bracknell-in-waiting, offering an astonishing display of mannered virtuosity and flawless comic style.
But the gem is Burton's Constance. Rarely off-stage during the entire play, she gives a layered, magical performance that effortlessly surpasses the text supporting it.
Love and sex are commodities only as durable as cut flowers - and perhaps no more significant - in the immaculate drawing room where the unromantic comedy "The Constant Wife" unfolds. The pragmatic heroine of W. Somerset Maugham's 1926 play, Constance Middleton, is a well-groomed Englishwoman who refuses to let the scandal of a straying husband mar the perfection of her emotional decor. She simply rearranges the furniture around the uncomfortable fact, and carries on, wiser perhaps, but certainly not sadder.
Broadway has been in the reupholstering business for a long time, but producers do not often forage deeply in the antiques fair of theatrical history for material as obscure as this to restore to the repertory. Although Maugham, best known as a novelist, wrote many popular plays in the early decades of the century, none have landed a berth on the unofficial list of enduring classics. In comparison with most of Maugham's other plays, "The Constant Wife" has actually been a fairly frequent visitor to Broadway: It has previously served as a vehicle for Ethel Barrymore (in 1926), Katharine Cornell (1951) and Ingrid Bergman (1975).
A jaunty, efficient Kate Burton undertakes the role of Constance for the stylish new Roundabout Theater Company production, directed by Mark Brokaw, which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater. Ms. Burton is not a star on the order of Barrymore,Cornell or Bergman, of course - who today is?
That's a small pity, since a shot of high-voltage glamour would probably help disguise signs of decay in Maugham's play, which is merely an elaborate comic trifle, all glittering surface shellacking an emotional void. But Ms. Burton's brisk professionalism - her crystalline locution and assured British accent, her robust but never vulgar sense of comedy - will do fine, thank you, until they start manufacturing the likes of Cornell and Barrymore again. (Fat chance.)
Constance is offstage as the play begins, her fraying marriage the object of decorous but intense debate among various interested parties. Her mother, Mrs. Culver, played by the dryly imperious Lynn Redgrave, has planted herself on Constance's sofa in order to deny her spinster daughter, Martha (Enid Graham), the pleasurable duty of informing Constance that her husband is deceiving her. Constance's friend Barbara (Kathleen McNenny), who also knows about the affair, has come to offer her a partnership in her decorating business, as either a consolation or a financial lifeline should the marriage break apart.
But their feminine sympathies are collectively confounded when it is revealed that Constance knows - full well that her husband, John, has been carrying on with her best friend, the frill-trimmed flirt Marie-Louise (a winkingly pert Kathryn Meisle). After a protracted comic scene in which Constance crisply dismisses Marie-Louise's husband's suspicions, despite hard proof of the lovers' intimacy, she explains her position. "I was fond enough of John to be willing that he should be happy in his own way," she says airily, "and if he was going to indulge in an intrigue, then it was much better that the object of his affection be so intimate a friend of mine that I could keep a maternal eye on him."
Constance's dreadfully civilized approach to John's infidelity is equally astonishing to her abashed but grateful husband (Michael Cumpsty, jolly in his mortification). He is less delighted when Constance explains the reasons for her indifference, namely the simultaneous cooling of her own ardor for him. And he is dismayed and outraged when, in the last of the three acts in the play (it is performed here with one intermission), the ever-cool Constance unveils a plan to exact revenge.
At its best, "The Constant Wife" suggests a sugar-coated Shaw play. Constance's wry observations about the practicalities of upper-crust marriage and its mercenary foundations ("The modern wife is nothing but a parasite," "There is only one freedom that is really important and that is economic freedom") must have struck clarion, provocative notes in the 1920's. Maugham's writing also evokes Oscar Wilde, albeit Wilde diluted with lavender water. The elaborate aphorisms dropped by Constance and her mother tend to sound wittier than they actually are, thanks to the gently italicized delivery of Ms. Burton and Ms. Redgrave.
Mr. Brokaw and his cast occasionally betray a desire to bend this comedy of manners toward farce: Ms. Burton's strenuous business with a series of handkerchiefs marks a rare slide into obviousness.
This instinct may derive from an impulse to distract us somehow from the play's eventually exhausting triviality, which gradually gnaws away at the pleasure to be taken in the ingenuity of Maugham's narrative and the dainty flavor of his ever-so-Anglo dialogue.
As the manicured language flows on and on ("Think what a bore it is to have someone in love with you whom you're not in love with" ; " I can't conceive of your ever being a bore, Constance"), a sense of sterility begins to pervade the stage. The suspicion grows that Allen Moyer's ornately elegant set, awash in chinoiserie, and Michael Krass's beautifully cut, colorful period costuines have as much real character as the chattering people draped in and around them - even dear Constance, who, for all Ms. Burton's winning energy and warmth, is so infernally good and wise and competent that you come to suspect iced Earl Grey tea runs in her veins.
Everybody talks frankly, smartly, sometimes wittily of love and sexual passion, of the naughty things that men do and the wicked or noble women who accommodate them, but for Maugham's characters these turbulent life forces do not seem to have a tangible reality that would justify postponing a game of tennis. Like Constance, Maugham seems to suggest that human nature, in its silly squalor, is not a thing to get worked up about when there are more serious matters to ponder, like the weather or the wallpaper.
Constance Middleton, the heroine of W. Somerset Maugham's 1926 play The Constant Wife, would get a kick out of the so-called liberated women prancing around on TV and in magazines these days, whose principal occupations seem to be obsessing over which men they are or should be sleeping with. Or, if they're really independent-minded, which men their friends are or should be sleeping with.
At first blush, Constance is a conventional well-to-do wife, married 15 years to a surgeon whom she appears to adore. Yet she has some unusual theories about marriage, particularly among members of the privileged class.
"The modern wife is nothing but a parasite," she announces. Her spouse, John, "has bought my fidelity, and I should be worse than a harlot if I took the price he paid and did not deliver the goods." And this declaration comes just moments after it's revealed that Constance's hubby has been secretly playing doctor with her best friend.
If you're ready to write Mrs. Middleton off as a cynic or a simp, think again. As written by Maugham and played by the delightful Kate Burton in the Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival of his comedy (* * * out of four), which opened Thursday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, Constance is neither a desperate housewife nor a faux-feminist flake.
Burton's latest witty, wily woman is rather an elegant pragmatist and a perfect foil for the self-righteous society gals and foolish but innocuous hypocrites who pop up in Maugham's satire of highbrow domesticity. That crew includes Constance's more traditional but also practical mum, whom Lynn Redgrave sprinkles with a salty drollness that ensures mother-daughter confrontations are never dull.
Michael Cumpsty captures the unfaithful husband's buffoonery with his usual vigor and grace, though as his mistress, Kathryn Meisle overdoes the frazzled-floozy shtick. Likewise, as Constance's outraged sister, the pretty Enid Graham could make herself less of a glowering frump and still convey indignation.
But John Dossett is ideal as one of Constance's old suitors, who arrives just in time to make matters more complicated and intriguing. A naturally likable actor, Dossett projects the perfect blend of decency and understated sex appeal. From his first scene with Constance, we feel a pang of regret that she didn't choose this guy over John in the first place.
Maugham's constant wife ultimately secures both men's affection, as well as their respect. And she finds additional happiness in a separate pursuit that has nothing to do with dating or marriage whatsoever.
The only thing sad about the play's ending, in fact, is that it seems more plausible and progressive in 2005 than it probably did 79 years ago.