You don’t have to be an American in Britain — though it would probably help — to enjoy “Our Betters,” Somerset Maugham’s rarely seen 1917 comedy with which Kathleen Turner makes her second Chichester Festival appearance of the summer (following the solo show “Tallulah!”). A quietly cutting satire of Yanks who yearn to be English, the play is no less critical of these Americans’ arrogant, self-absorbed hosts. It’s a sign of Maugham’s magnanimity that American earnestness carries the day (even if it took Oscar Wilde to demonstrate the lasting importance of being earnest).
There’s little especially lasting about “Our Betters” beyond its status as the kind of gently piquant curiosity on which Chichester thrives. (The play runs through Sept. 27 in repertory with “Divorce Me, Darling!,” the Sandy Wilson musical sequel to “The Boyfriend.”) Bessie Saunders (Sheri Graubart) is newly arrived in London from Chicago in order to follow older sister Pearl, now Lady Grayston (played by Turner), in swapping U.S. cash for a U.K. title. While Bessie’s cousin (and childhood sweetheart) Fleming Harvey (Charles Edwards) looks on in dismay, she is duly taken up by a circuit of posh schemers, presided over by Pearl with the sang-froid of a society hostess whose life, we’re told, “is a work of art.”
Pearl isn’t the only American reinventing herself. Her romantic rival is the even more grandly titled Duchesse de Surennes (Rula Lenska), whose frightfully callow 25-year-old English paramour Anthony Paxton (Stephen Billington) Pearl has the effrontery to seduce in the teahouse. Watching from the sidelines are two other Yanks, the Principessa della Cercola (Barbara Jefford) and Thornton Clay (William Hootkins), the latter a Virginian embodiment of America’s burgeoning leisured class. Among Britons paying courtship are Bessie’s intended, Lord Bleane (Nicholas Caunter), and Pearl’s aging benefactor, Arthur Fenwick (Nigel Davenport), a so-called “sensualist” who may strike contemporary observers as too patronizing — he calls Pearl “girlie” — for comfort.
As is the way of three-act plays of the period, the first two generally mark time: There’s not a lot of drama in whether Fleming will learn to forsake “gee” in favor of the preferred “by Jove.” Director Michael Rudman — himself an American long residing in England — could have done more to anticipate the snap that the play goes on to achieve. The bold (if offstage) second-act denouement notwithstanding, the play comes into its own in the final stretch, as Maugham lays bare a house full of societal malcontents.
The double irony of the title turns out to have little to do with the triumph of American sincerity over the snobbery worshipped by the same idolaters; instead, Maugham was implying in the early decades of this century that the abiding virtues of “honor, decency and self-restraint” will win out over any social upstart’s attempts to better them.
Pearl is a pretty good role for Turner, whose ever-peculiar voice suits a crowd prone to borrowed, not easily placed accents. If there’s a faintly equine quality to her strutting (shame, too, about a wig that resembles a giant brioche), the actress looks more comfortable here than she did with the not dissimilar depredations of Jean Cocteau’s “Indiscretions.” Of the rest, little sister Graubart is so irritating that one wants to bundle her back home at the first opportunity, while Davenport’s doting Arthur possesses the consummate veteran performer’s ease to make his infrequent appearances some of “Our Betters’ ” best.