Unlike those of his contemporary Noel Coward, W. Somerset Maugham’s plays are infrequently staged on Broadway. That unfamiliarity, plus the chance to appreciate deliciously witty work from Kate Burton and Lynn Redgrave, make the Roundabout’s plushly upholstered revival of “The Constant Wife” an enjoyable distraction. Despite the 1926 drawing-room comedy’s dusty longueurs, the supremely savvy orchestrations of Constance Middleton as she responds to her husband’s philandering by seizing financial and sexual independence make her a perverse protofeminist — and an antecedent to the women of “Desperate Housewives” and “Sex and the City.”
Given Maugham’s own unorthodox experience of marriage, living apart from wife Syrie Wellcome through most of their union, his position on the marital map might be expected to be somewhat amorphous. In giving women the upper hand while relegating men to the role of dupes always trailing a few steps behind, the playwright concocted a pointed comedy doubtless considered progressive and mildly shocking in its day.
Fact that Wellcome made a name for herself as an interior decorator, which is also Constance’s avenue of economic freedom, seems a telling detail — though Mrs. Maugham’s famous white-on-white color schemes are a minimalist world away from the character’s cultivated taste here, as exhibited in the modish mix of stately chintz and busy Asian chic in designer Allen Moyer’s Harley Street living room.
In previous Broadway incarnations, the play was a vehicle for Ethel Barrymore in 1926, Katharine Cornell in 1951 and, most recently, for Ingrid Bergman in 1975 (probably something of a stretch playing mid-30s Constance at 60). Burton steps into those formidable shoes with spry confidence, not to mention elegance in costumer Michael Krass’ glamorous outfits.
As her worldly mother, Mrs. Culver, says early on in Redgrave’s peerless, bone-dry delivery, “Frankness, of course, is the pose of the moment. It is often a very effective screen for one’s thoughts.” Constance, however, employs the weaponry of both frankness and concealment. She spends half the play apparently in blissful ignorance as to the errant ways of her doctor husband of 15 years, John (Michael Cumpsty); then, when confronted with proof of his affair with her best friend, Mary-Louise (Kathryn Meisle), Constance reveals without batting an eyelid that she has known all along.
Long before Ivana Trump made “Don’t get mad, get everything” a mantra, Maugham’s heroine was pioneering “Don’t get mad, get even.” But her goal is less revenge than simple self-realization.
Constance adores her laddish husband and, to use the parlance of the day, still relishes his society. But she no more loves him than he now loves her, she explains, while Cumpsty’s John looks on, wide-eyed with embarrassment and confusion. Likewise Mrs. Culver, whose initially unflappable, laissez-faire demeanor and indulgence toward the “naughtiness” of men suddenly seems Victorian next to her more forward-thinking, self-possessed daughter. While Mrs. Culver advocates compromise in marriage, Constance’s devotion operates by its own rules.
John’s extramarital excursion gives Constance carte blanche to remove any sense of debt to her husband and then pursue her own passions. While remaining “constant” to John, her plan involves a brief vacation from marriage with her dull but adoring former suitor Bernard (John Dossett). That she manages to twist every situation to her own advantage and manipulate everyone around her while remaining a thoroughly charming figure is testament to the light touch in Burton’s mischievous, knowing performance.
Much of the talky play involves lengthy stretches of the title character expounding on the game of marriage, as she views it, while the others sit or stand around in stunned silence. Despite the challenge of injecting energy into such scenes, director Mark Brokaw is a nimble guide to the proceedings, keeping the speech fairly loose even with all the plummy vowels flying about. He is aided by Maugham’s wry dialogue, which, while not quite in the league of Coward or Wilde, has its share of sparkling quips.
In addition to the marvelous, alert-eyed Redgrave, who glides about like a battleship, commandingly crowned in regal hats and brandishing a walking stick, reliable support comes from Cumpsty as the most jovial and sympathetic of cads, a sharp departure from his darker roles in Michael Frayn’s “Democracy” and “Copenhagen.” Enid Graham keeps a judicious hold on the spinsterish priggishness of Constance’s concerned sister Martha, while Meisle strikes the right note of drollery as self-absorbed flit Mary-Louise.