The critical consensus today on W. Somerset Maugham, perhaps best known for works such as “Of Human Bondage” and “The Razor’s Edge,” seems to be that of a tepid respect, an acknowledgment of significance more than the hero worship accorded the likes of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward. This is an unfortunate oversight. In 1926, when his play “The Constant Wife” opened in New York, the ideas it contained concerning marriage, infidelity and women’s liberation could scarcely have been less startling in their audacity. The current production at the Pasadena Playhouse, a delightful confection of sparkling wit, is a welcome reminder of Maugham’s genuine talent.
All of Constance Middleton’s (Megan Gallagher) friends and family know that her husband, John (Stephen Caffrey), is having an affair with her best friend, Mary-Louise (Libby West). Her mother, Mrs. Culver (Carolyn Seymour), thinks it typical of all men, and would ignore it. Her friend Barbara (Ann Marie Lee) is happy to gossip about it. Constance’s younger sister, Martha (Monette Magrath), is dying to tell her and see her get divorced from John. Constance, however, knows about the affair, and doesn’t really mind. When old suitor Bernard Kersal (Kaleo Griffith) comes back into her life, though, she begins to rethink what it is she really wants.
Gallagher is marvelous as the self-possessed Constance, in a perf that delivers both an exquisitely droll reserve and the shadow-play of turbulent emotion beneath a cool facade. Caffrey excels as the blustering, fumbling John, particularly at the end of the play, when he must finally deal with the reality of his situation. Seymour is adept as the dryly humorous Mrs. Culver, a staunch representative of an older way of looking at marriage, and West is amusing as the dim Mary-Louise. Griffith is effective as the lovelorn Bernard. Magrath and Lee are both fine in their roles, but their characters seem to be more figureheads than three-dimensional.
Director Art Manke keeps the pace lively, and brings all the subtleties of the piece to the surface, although a coda with Constance pirouetting beneath a fall of flower petals is a bit much. Angela Balogh Calin’s lavish costumes bring a sense of the time period and the characters’ personalities to bear, but her airy living room set — complete with symbolic gilded birdcage — seems generic.