W. Somerset Maugham was a bisexual man who had a child out of wedlock with a married woman, then wrecked his marriage to that woman with a long-term liaison with another man. So perhaps he possessed an unusually nuanced perspective on the enduring subject of his gimlet-eyed 1926 comedy “The Constant Wife” — the imperfect fit between men and women, husbands and wives, and human nature and social convention. Indeed, the Old Globe’s lushly upholstered, surprisingly perceptive new production suggests Maugham, at his best, could harness a heady blend of wit, economy and moral seriousness on a par with the three scribes — Wilde, Coward and Shaw — to whom he is so often unfavorably compared.
Maugham’s heroine is Constance Middleton (Henny Russell), an intelligent, spirited, upper-crust woman whose frank self-appraisal is that she, like other wives of her class, is little more than a parasite, “a prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.”
When an affair between her surgeon husband, John (Wynn Harmon, deliciously smarmy), and her best friend, Mary-Louise (Lara Phillips), is exposed to public scrutiny, Constance declines to play the conventional part of the wronged woman; instead, she renegotiates the terms of her marriage to win her economic and sexual freedom.
To the surprise of her usually unflappable mother (Kandis Chappell, wonderfully dry), and the consternation of her outfoxed husband, Constance takes a job with modern career gal Barbara (Amanda Naughton), then decamps for Italy with an old flame (J. Paul Boehmer).
Played as an arch cynic, Constance can come across as a revenge-seeking harpy, bent on inflicting on her husband the emotional harm that she herself has hidden under layers of denial. Russell’s heroine is more like a Mary Poppins of sexual politics, a determinedly upbeat pragmatist who — armed with smiles, good sense and a smattering of bon mots — makes the best of a bad situation, then turns it lightly to her own advantage.
Russell forms the powerful center of a strong, likable ensemble, directed by Seret Scott with a kind of loose-limbed precision that telegraphs both the rigid codes of the British upper class and the shifting social landscape of the postwar Jazz Age.
With the exception of Phillips, who plays her ditzy-paramour role with self-defeating self-consciousness, Scott and her cast deliver a luscious, droll evening of period comedy. But they also convey the play’s unexpected modernism, exposing it as a shrewd, still-relevant examination of women’s roles, the nature of love and the manners and mores of marriage.
The Constant Wife