Those in search of a taste of the West End the way it used to be _ before, for instance, a whiff of the contemporary and/or the multicultural arrived by way of “This Is Our Youth” and “The Mysteries,” among others _ will breathe a sigh of relief at “The Constant Wife,” emitting a double purr that Edward Hall’s revival isn’t half bad. Hall (director-son of Sir Peter, who was in the audience on opening night) came to this staging from the Royal Shakespeare Company, having departed a Stratford reclamation of Shakespeare discovery “Edward III” in a dispute over casting. Few would claim that Somerset Maugham’s 1926 play — first seen in, of all places, Cleveland, Ohio — itself represents a discovery, but there’s enough in Maugham’s semi-pioneering take on sexual politics to keep auds guessing today, not to mention cheering heroine Constance Middleton (Jenny Seagrove) in her quest for both passion and financial independence.
Can the two co-exist? Not easily in the well-upholstered Harley St. environment (the soothing design is by Michael Pavelka) of a play that proved a durable vehicle nearly 30 years ago for Ingrid Bergman in the title role. Constance’s marriage to surgeon John (Steven Pacey, making the best of a pin-striped dupe) is durable, after a fashion, as well, but only because his wife willingly turns a blind eye to indiscretions that come as no surprise to her — indeed, his latest prey is Constance’s best friend, Marie-Louise (Sara Crowe). The point is that Constance now merely adores the man she once loved; erotic and economic freedom, she knows full well, lie elsewhere, with Maugham folding sub-Wildean dialogue (“decency died with dear old Queen Victoria”) into the midst of an incipiently Ibsen-esque modern woman, and her set.
Constance, for one thing, would like to be able to do her own philandering, thank you very much, and seizes precisely that opportunity in the return from Cannes after more than a decade of erstwhile suitor Bernard (the ever-smooth Simon Williams). The result, in Maugham’s pragmatic — some might say cynical — equation, allows Constance to be “unfaithful” and “constant” virtually at once, while battling the belief that fidelity on either side can be bought. (Constance strikes out on her own by becoming an interior decorator: how up-to-date is that!)
One could make the case that “The Constant Wife’s” central character is more interesting than a play that occasionally risks patronizing Constance in much the way that her social milieu does. After all, what chance does any woman have amid a climate in which men are tolerated as “fluctuating and various” one minute, extolled for “doing a friendly act” — you can guess what that means — the next? One has to wonder, too, just whose side Maugham is on, making the alternative to cuckoldry Constance’s venomous prune of a sister, the sort of woman — in Serena Evans’ snappish perf — whose glasses make immediately clear that she’s lacking a man.
Director Hall deserves credit for enlivening the sort of script in which a forbidden embrace is met by a remark like, “oh, my dear, don’t be so sudden.” But even if such stiff-backed Englishness seems faintly risible today, Constance retains a fascination that comes with parcelling out guile like so many lumps of sugar. She’s a good match, too, for Seagrove’s trademark cool, which here comes accompanied by some deft physical business involving handkerchiefs (even if “Othello” this is not). Embodying the opposing view of emancipation from her daughter is the briskly enjoyable Linda Thorson, as a matriarch capable of making a single word like “fertilized” sound impossibly louche.
The only genuine letdown among the cast is the perennially squeaky-voiced Crowe, who seems doomed forever to effect scant variations on the same clenched artifice that brought her to attention more than a decade ago in “Private Lives.” (She was the scene-stealing Sibyl to Joan Collins’ forgettable Amanda.) It doesn’t help that Marie-Louise’s broadsides — “Aren’t you a little fatter than when I saw you last?” — seem a bit rich coming from an unflatteringly costumed player who is hardly the sylph she once was. Surrounded by a company determined to play “The Constant Wife” for real, Crowe takes the cheesy way out, as befits a character whose response to emotional distress is to have her hair washed.