W. Somerset Maugham is best known for the novels “Of Human Bondage” and “The Razor’s Edge,” but he also had quite the reputation in his day as a playwright. His 1921 comedy of manners “The Circle” is produced less frequently as time goes on, surviving more as an example of its form than as an important or unusual play, which it isn’t. The South Coast Rep revival proves that it still works, though, especially when the creaky machinery is given a nice oiling, as it is in this briskly paced production, delivered with verve by as fine a cast as one will find in the regional theater.
The play is quite striking in its foreshadowing of the affair that would bring down a king: the scandalous coupling of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor that would occur a decade or so later. In “The Circle,” a similar scandal hangs over the proceedings.
Thirty years earlier, potential prime minister Lord Porteous ran away to Italy with his best friend’s wife, Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney, who left naught but a note on a pin-cushion to explain her departure to her husband Clive and then 5-year-old son Arnold.
Now, Arnold (John Hines) has grown up, landed a seat in Parliament (his father resigned his after the scandal) and married a beautiful, charming wife named Elizabeth (Nancy Bell). She, it turns out, is contemplating leaving Arnold for another man, the more uncouth and therefore more romantic Teddy Luton (Douglas Weston).
To answer some of her long-standing questions, Elizabeth has invited Lady Catherine and Lord Porteous back to the scene of their crime, the Champion-Cheney family mansion, for luncheon and a sure-to-be-awkward mother-son reunion.
It’s all made even more sure-to-be-awkward when Clive (Paxton Whitehead) turns up, having canceled his trip to Paris. While he promises to stay away, we all know better.
Maugham couldn’t have prepared things more nicely for the arrival of the guests, who show up in the very welcome form of actors Carole Shelley and William Biff McGuire. Let’s just say the characters don’t live up to Elizabeth’s romantic imaginings — to her, they were a couple who sacrificed all for love, but now they’re a pair of bickering geezers, he with false teeth that don’t fit, she with disturbingly thick makeup and a poodle in tow.
The plot focuses on whether Elizabeth will decide to leave Arnold, with the theme of the duty of marriage vs. the passion of true love providing some thoughtful drive. But Maugham wasn’t as witty as Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, nor as provocatively brainy as George Bernard Shaw, so neither the language nor the ideas here are thrilling.
What is nice is the characters. The greatest pleasures of the play stay with the older generation, particularly Clive. Whitehead plays Clive with the superb dryness of a fine wine — he’s mischievous and charming at once, egging on the arguments between his ex-wife and his ex-friend. Shelley matches Whitehead’s restraint with an extremely entertaining showiness, and McGuire is a curmudgeon par excellence.
But the comparative youngsters are strong too, in part because they make us believe the elders used to be just like them. Arnold’s priggishness, for example, has turned into Clive’s cynicism.
In three acts, the play proceeds very smoothly. Indeed, it all ends 20 minutes sooner than the running time listed in the program, reflecting the fact that director Warner Shook has taken all the air out of the dialogue.
By not permitting any dramatic pauses or too much lingering for laughs, Shook serves this lightweight play extremely well. This is the kind of work where one shouldn’t start feeling deeply for the characters, or the appealingly unpredictable ending could get all gooey.
The staging occasionally does feel like shuffling of figures on a gameboard, but that’s what happens when a play is pretty much all talk — there’s nothing to do but move the talkers from the couch to the chair and back again.
But even when the talking gets a bit dull — and Shook’s cast keeps that from happening the overwhelming majority of the time — we can always look to the elaborate art deco set and costumes, designed by Ralph Funicello and Walter Hicklin, respectively, for entertainment.