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The Circle (11/20/1989 - 05/20/1990)


New York Daily News: "'Circle': Arc of triumph"

"To everything there is a season," Ecclesiastes declared. Although the preacher enumerated many of them (mundane things like "a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance"), what this meant in showbiz terms was never specified.

What it means is that just as there must be groundbreaking new plays, commercial comedies and jolly musicals, there must be revivals of chestnuts that give audiences a chance to show their affection for stars who have given them pleasure over the years.

And thus there is a time for Somerset Maugham's 1921 "The Circle," a surprisingly sturdy play about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of flouting social conventions for love. The play is written with as much craftsmanship and knowledge of the cruelty of both society and the human heart as you would expect.

Glynis Johns plays a society woman who returns to the English country house where, 30 years before, she left her husband and son for another man, thus ruining her social - and his political - career. Rex Harrison plays "the other man," Stewart Granger the wronged husband. She discovers that her son's wife is about to commit the same error. Trying to advise the young woman, she must reexamine her own life.

Johns' finest moment is a scene where someone describes photos in a scrapbook of her youth. In her face you read how golden it must have seemed and how heartbreaking the intervening years have been. Johns' lilting, autumnal voice is perfect; so is her fragile sense of dignity.

Rex Harrison has raised crotchetiness to a great art. Much of his role consists of being peevish. He does it, however, with rascally exuberance. There is not a laugh in the text that he does not deliver - probably adding many no one noticed before.

Granger has charm in abundance. He might have had more authority, but that comes only from many years on the stage. This is his first theater work in decades.

Robin Chadwick is amusingly irritating as the husband any bright woman would want to desert. Roma Downey is lovely and sparkling as his dissatisfied wife, Harley Venton a dashing, believably adoring suitor.

You have the feeling the production has not yet jelled, but as an unabashedly old-fashioned evening of charm and elegance, it's super.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Right Social 'Circle'"

A genuine touch of theatrical London is to be found at the Ambassador Theater, presented with stately and ineffable charm tinged with a very correct arrogance by the extraordinarily special Sir Rex Harrison and his gorgeous colleagues, Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger.

They were opening last night in W. Somerset Maugham's venerable social comedy of style present, manners past and a society dissolved, "The Circle."

It makes for a lovely evening (or matinee!) of theater, redolent of special social charms and almost forgotten histrionic graces.

Here is an effortless demonstration of style over substance, in which the substance is far from insubstantial but nowadays needs to be captured by a time-traveling imagination.

It is not a play of our time. And many will say, "Thank God!" to that. It is that kind of play that demands that kind of audience that can give a justified little round of applause to an adroitly directed butler (it is, indeed, the kind of play that often has butlers and even footmen) rearranging a cushion.

And, as the director Brian Murray well knows, there is significance in such tiny social touches, reverberations that echo through such plays, giving them a right sense of time and place.

The London theater has developed over the years an informal but very agreeable institution known as the "Haymarket revival." These are all-star (well, at the very least, starry) productions, of plays with players of a certain age and reputation that are given, characteristically but not exclusively, at the Theater Royal, Haymarket.

The plays, usually of the drawing room comedy genre from the first part of this century, are by such major and minor masters as Wilde, Shaw, Pinero, Frederick Lonsdale, Maugham and the rest, and they are exercises in style as well as invitations to nostalgia.

The style is high, sometimes beyond the point of mannerism, and the nostalgia extends not only to the plays - which are much more than simply dated but are actually time-stamped, representing the morals, mores and atavistic customs of an extinct tribe - but also to the actors, who are often semi-retired film stars with a fame that has literally preceded them.

The British do this kind of thing extremely well - as can be seen from this sumptuous production, with its extravagant period setting by Desmond Heeley, lovingly observed costumes by Jane Greenwood and flamboyantly judged performances.

"The Circle," written in 1920 and the most frequently revived of all of Somerset Maugham's work is about marriage, love and the social and emotional consequences of adultery, seen naturally through the prism of its period.

Arnold (Robin Chadwick) is a rising young politician, living in a handsome country home in Dorset, England, some 80 miles out of London. His beautiful wife, Elizabeth (Roma Downey), invites his mother, Kitty (Johns), to lunch with her long-time lover, Lord Porteous (Harrison).

Arnold has not seen his mother for 30 years - not since she decamped from his house, scandalously fleeing with Porteous to an opulent emigre life in Italy.

But now the matter is infinitely complicated by the fact that Arnold's father Clive (Granger), who still maintains a cottage on the family estate, has unexpectedly dropped in for a visit.

Such social complexities take a turn for the deeper, when we discover that Elizabeth is, ironically, contemplating just such a marital flight as undertaken by Kitty three decades earlier, and her tennis-playing suitor Edward (Harley Venton), a rubber planter from the Federated Malay States, is a house guest instantly ready to whisk her back to his particular colonial outpost of the British empire.

The story of Kitty's betrayal of Clive seems to be replaying itself full circle - but the older generation tried, with their sense and experience, to prevent it.

Today the story, with its remote social nuances, is less intriguing than the characters telling it - but Maugham has given us four, including the finicky Arnold, really interesting people to spend the play with.

Harrison, eyes hooded, voice malicious with honeyed contempt, makes a splendidly shambling Porteous, proud with disappointment, unbowed by the triviality of his life.

And the other two are really just as good - Johns is properly poignant as the over-painted, elderly woman recalling her pretty past, squabbling with her aged lover, flirting with her former husband.

Granger, making a Broadway debut and a stranger to the stage for years, is very assured and elegant as Clive - with his flamboyant gestures as germane to the character as his impeccable tailoring, he seems the very model of overbearingly cheery, happily smug, upper-class confidence.

Chadwick makes a good shot at the priggishly unhappy Arnold (I am spoiled here - my very first Arnold, at the Haymarket itself actually, was John Gielgud in 1944, whom I recall as priggishness epitomized and made poetic). The juveniles, Downey and Venton, make all the right noises and have all the right smiles, and Patricia Conolly proves drily effective as the house guest apparently brought into the play to make a four for bridge.

Murray has staged the play with real affection, and if you need any further prompting to go, let me add that the 81-year-old Sir Rex is threatening to make this his last play. I don't believe this for a moment - Harrison is like Gielgud, where there's a curtain there'll be an entrance - but I pass it on for what it's worth.

And should - Heaven forfend - the grand old man be serious, you should note that he is making that farewell in the grand manner and in grand company.

New York Post

New York Times: "Rex Harrison Back on Broadway"

When Rex Harrison makes his long-awaited star entrance, the evening's last, in the Broadway revival of ''The Circle,'' one can't help wondering: Why does he need to do this?

With more than a half-century of memorable roles behind him, Mr. Harrison hardly must prove himself as an actor. Nor, at age 81, is he likely to show the audience anything new. But here he is on stage at the Ambassador Theater, regal in an Edwardian cream linen suit, playing his part in a 1921 W. Somerset Maugham comedy that seems much older than he is. And Mr. Harrison chooses to undertake this exertion eight times a week.

It doesn't take forever to figure out why. Mr. Harrison, looking fitter than he has in other Broadway outings of this decade, clearly still delights in performing. ''The Circle,'' which he has hinted in interviews will be his valedictory, lets him strut as much as flesh and bones will permit. As Lord Porteous, a once-promising Member of Parliament whose career ended in romantic scandal and exile 30 years ago, Mr. Harrison gets to grind his ''damn new teeth,'' bray insults at his intellectual inferiors and in general carry on as irascibly as ever. Peering across the sitting room at his pompous host's prized, newly bought antique chair, Mr. Harrison raises spectacles to his eyes and immediately declares, ''It's a fake!'' One hears the same gleeful contempt with which Henry Higgins once dismissed the Hungarian phonetician who crossed Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy Ball.

Yes, Mr. Harrison carries on. So do the somewhat spryer co-stars who have joined him for this occasion, Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger. As for ''The Circle,'' it is merely a convenience that allows a devoted audience to enjoy three troupers enjoying themselves doing what each does best. The result is a theatrical experience of a very specific type, to be sure, but an entirely valid one. Just be certain you understand what you're getting into.

From Desmond Heeley's country-home set, whose sea-green walls almost seem to have acquired a patina of algae with age, to Brian Murray's staging, which consists mainly of draping the actors around the furniture, ''The Circle'' is a throwback to a distant era in West End boulevard theater. The production almost makes the last Harrison vehicle -Frederick Lonsdale's ''Aren't We All?'' (1923), seen in 1985 - look avant-garde. It's the kind of relic best encountered on a chilly, rainy, late autumn afternoon; Maugham's writing all but demands the counterpoint of matinee patrons removing their galoshes and adjusting their holiday shopping bags.

The dramaturgical geometry of ''The Circle'' actually involves two love triangles. Lord Porteous has traveled from Italy to England with Lady Kitty Champion-Cheney (Miss Johns), the married woman for whom he so famously sacrificed his career. As the couple have their reunion with Lady Kitty's son in Dorset, they not only must confront the husband they long ago cuckolded (Mr. Granger), but they also happen upon a new scandal in the brewing. Kitty's pompous son (Robin Chadwick), himself now a rising M.P., may soon lose his wife (Roma Downey) to a sweet-talking tennis-playing house guest from the Malay States (Harley Venton).

Will family history repeat itself and come full circle? I'll hold my peace. The answer would be more interesting, in any case, if the author had something enduring to say about marriage, infidelity and love, or if he expressed his perishable views more wittily. Its occasional laughs and solid construction notwithstanding, ''The Circle'' isn't about to slow the decline in Maugham's literary reputation since his death in 1965, and it hardly leaves one eager to exhume the 20-odd other plays (''The Constant Wife'' most famous among them) that he wrote before abandoning the theater in the 1930's. The flat boilerplate dialogue - ''Do you know that I'm awfully in love with you?'' or ''You can't serve God and mammon!'' - helps one appreciate how excited English audiences must have been when Noel Coward refitted similar sitting rooms with ''Hay Fever'' and ''The Vortex'' only a few seasons later.

The most tiresome burdens of ''The Circle'' fall on the younger characters, here played by decent actors who have been encouraged to accentuate the antiquity of the piece by striking anachronistic, at times campy stock-company attitudes. Their elders play for keeps. Miss Johns, the one member of the company called upon to convey emotion, is a poignant figure: a once-vibrant woman who has been transformed into a silly painted chatterbox by a frivolous life. When she and Mr. Harrison bicker about the disappointments that eventually turned their passionate illicit liaison into a sour parody of marriage, one feels her bitterness even as one exults in the verbal chamber music created by two of the most distinctive speaking voices in the English theater. A later scene, in which Miss Johns confesses to her daughter-in-law that her ''smiling eyes'' hide an ''aching heart,'' mists over in affecting tears.

Mr. Granger's job is to be a charming consort, and he executes it most handsomely. He also gets to deliver the script's most boisterously received line: ''I suppose it's hard for the young to realize that you can be old without being a fool.'' Actually, it's not so hard as he might think, at least for those who have watched the trio of sly old foxes at play in ''The Circle.''

New York Times

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