The new all-female incumbency at the Westport Country Playhouse has opted to open its first season at the venerable summer theater with an old play, W. Somerset Maugham’s marital comedy “The Constant Wife,” something of a feminist tract. And the group has chosen one of its own, artistic advisory council co-chair Joanne Woodward, to direct. In part because the play is so clearly a star vehicle and the one star here is in the director’s seat, the results are only so-so and seem little different from what was produced all too regularly by James B. McKenzie for so many summers prior to this season. Let’s hope the other productions in the WCP’s 70th season offer more hope of a rebirth at the theater.
Replete with echoes of Shaw, Wilde and Coward, but without their ability to dig well below the gleaming surface of high comedy, Maugham’s play was a vehicle for Ethel Barrymore who created its title role with great success on Broadway in 1926 and was later played by a succession of stars including Ruth Chatterton, Katharine Cornell and Fay Compton (who starred in the London premiere in 1927).
The lead role, Constance Middleton, is a woman in her mid-30s who is devoted to her husband though no longer in love with him. Constance’s husband has been having an affair and therefore is in no position to complain if his wife chooses to have an affair also.
Constance has to dominate the play with charm, glamour, intelligence and humor. At the end of the play, her husband says, “You are the most maddening, willful, capricious, wrong-headed, delightful and enchanting woman man was ever cursed with having for a wife.”
It’s a tall order for an actress to live up to, and Allison Mackie doesn’t, though she is never less than competent.
The play tends to be stilted and overly talky, particularly in its first two acts which are played without intermission, thereby making for an opening act that’s a long 75 minutes. Fortunately the last act picks up sufficiently to elicit audience laughter and enjoyment and to suggest what should have been throughout.
Woodward, who directed an excellent revival of Clifford Odets’ “The Big Knife” at the Williamstown Theater Festival two summers ago in which Mackie appeared, has not helmed “Constant Wife” as successfully.
She has encouraged her cast to adopt a highly artificial style of acting, presumably to suggest that of the period. But period high comedy such as this also requires complete sincerity from its cast and it doesn’t get it from its WCP actors who are all too prone to strike poses and orate their lines.
The production has been set in the 1920s, judging by its elegant Harley Street living room setting (Constance’s husband is a London surgeon) and the floating chiffons and cloche hats of the neatly in- period and in-character costumes.
All well and good, but then why does Constance sit down at the piano at one point and play the Gershwins’ “Love Is Here to Stay” which dates from 1938? And to which Mikel Sarah Lambert, as Constance’s dizzily sensible mother, is asked to do a silly little dance.
As Constance’s best friend and husband’s mistress, the amoral flibbertigibbet Marie-Louise, Kali Rocha has amusing moments but tends to bump and grind too much for an Englishwoman of her class and period.
All of the men lack glamour, though Daniel Gerroll as the wayward surgeon does rise to the occasion in his final scene. Armand Schultz as Constance’s life-long admirer tries too hard to sound like Noel Coward, and John Rothman goes way over the top as Marie-Louise’s outraged husband. Within the limitations of the artificial style they’ve been asked to adopt, the rest of the cast is OK.