By John Quinn
William Somerset Maugham was no George Bernard Shaw, and “The Constant Wife” is no “Major Barbara.” But both playwrights employed sparkling wit and compelling characters to deliver rather Marxist shots at society’s inequalities. Ethel Barrymore, who played the title role in the play’s 1926 premiere, considered “The Constant Wife” a “nasty play.” This had less to do with its blase treatment of adultery than with her aversion to the theme: conventional marriage is based on economic inequality, leading to women’s subservience. If that sounds like an early feminist battle cry, it is indeed. Revived by Meadow Brook Theatre, Maugham’s comedy of manners is medicine for an ailing society; the pill is coated in a sweet, colorful shell that hides the bitterness beneath.
It would seem that everybody knows about Dr. John Middleton’s affair with his wife’s best friend, Marie-Louise (Leslie Ann Handelman) – except Constance Middleton herself. Her friends and family are loath to tell her because, after all, a man is meant to stray, even though it reflects badly on his wife. The tattle-tale could be her younger sister, Martha (Allison Schubert), whose sharp tongue and suspicion of men may have a lot to do with her spinsterhood. But Marie-Louise’s husband, Mortimer (Glen Allen Pruett), discovers the affair and confronts the adulterers.
Far from being the naive victim, Constance covers for the lovers. She’s known all along; considering her loveless marriage and her shocking opinion that a modern wife is “a prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods,” she will not berate the “good” doctor. She has other options.
The return to London of a spurned suitor (Stephen Blackwell), coupled with an offer of partnership in an interior decorating business from her friend, Barbara (Melynee Saunders Warren), may give Constance the opportunity to serve her revenge cold.
If in the age of Twitter, the critic were to be reduced to a one word description of “The Constant Wife,” that word would be “style.” Karen Sheridan, stage director and Oakland University professor of theater, has paradoxically kept this production modern by adhering to the conventions of drawing room comedy. All the performances are larger than life, both in line readings and gestures. But the beauty here is the variety of said performances.
Cheryl Turski’s Constance, the axis around which the plot revolves, creates a formidable, restrained character which beautifully balances Chip DuFord’s fussbudget take on her harried husband. Her character is so grounded that lesser-seen characters, like Marie-Louise and Mortimer, can be delivered with full bombast. It’s the little touches that keep this performance fresh, even something as trivial as letting Bentley the butler, played by Michael Gillespie, perform the minor set change in Act I in character, as if it were just another day in the drawing room.
“The Constant Wife” looks as good as it sounds. Liz Moore’s period costumes are bountiful eye candy and readily define each character. Jen Price Fick’s drawing room set (drawing room comedy, remember?) is clean and yet elegant and full of detail. Couple their efforts with the subtle lighting courtesy of Reid G. Johnson and we find that “style” still neatly sums up the production.
I would be remiss without mentioning audience favorite Dominique Lowell, who plays Constance’s mother. Maugham has given her some of the best bon mots. Lovell tosses them off with a weary acceptance of the status quo. Mrs. Culver, whose philosophy is as dated as her choice in couture, is still fast on the uptake. When Constance asks, “How does one know one is in love?” she answers, “Could you use his toothbrush?”
“The Constant Wife” is as English as high tea, with a boiling plot and characters as crisp as scones and rich as fresh butter. Yet the comedy is remarkably timeless and pertinent to the modern sensibility. You’ve come a long way, baby!
‘The Constant Wife’
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Rd., Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through April 14. 2 hours, 20 minutes. $31-$40. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com