The Constant Wife
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 22, 2005
Constance Middleton is smart, sophisticated, kind, rich, and yet all her friends are feeling terribly sorry for her. Her husband, John Middleton, F.R.C.S. (which stands for Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons; he's a high-class doctor), is having an affair with her dear friend Marie-Louise Durham. She knows, though: and when Marie-Louise's enormously wealthy but still uncouth husband Mortimer calls the question by accusing John and Marie-Louise of their infidelity in front of them, Constance, and (conveniently) all of the other characters in this play, she devises a quick-witted and entirely unexpected response that shields all involved from scandal while giving her the upper hand vis-a-vis John and Marie-Louise. She then executes a year-long plot to get her own back, more or less, striking what playwright W. Somerset Maugham must have thought was a splendid blow for the feminist cause in 1926 in the process.
Constance's machinations are possible because she doesn't care about her husband's adultery (or so she says). Years ago, she realized that she had fallen out of love with him (though she professes to still like him very much). She also, more recently, has begun to question her place in his life. She feels, she tells us, like a prostitute, but a fraudulent one: she lives off her husband's money, but, since the advent of Marie-Louise, she hasn't performed any services whatsoever in return. She craves an honest living, and so after the affair is exposed and abruptly ended, she takes a job working as an interior decorator for her friend Barbara Fawcett, and earns £1,400 during her first year (that's about $68,000 in 2005 money, not bad for a neophyte with no training). With this money, she executes a plan that deals a wounding insult to her proud, pompous husband and will, perhaps, bring her temporary (possible sexual) satisfaction.
Maugham was presumably being Terribly Modern dealing so forthrightly with the nature of the marriage contract among rich people in upper-class '20s London. But his portrait of the Middletons, or at least Constance's perception of their relationship, feels incomplete: surely there's more to married life than copulation—John reminds his wife that they have in fact brought a daughter into the world, but even this fairly fundamental sacramental duty fails to stir our Enlightened Heroine. No, according to Constance's warped logic, a wife's only job is to put out; and if for any reason the sex subsides, she's not living up to her part of the bargain. For contrast, Maugham provides the grasping and spoiled Marie-Louise, who has taken another lover before the play's end, again under her doting husband's nose, and has also (at Constance's suggestion) accepted a $600,000 pearl necklace from Mortimer. I guess Constance knows an actual whore when she sees one.
All of which leads me to just one question: Why on earth is anyone reviving a play this archaic and idiotic? Maugham has filled his script, Wilde-like, with epigrammatic pronouncements about the relative natures of men (piggish) and women (faithful but manipulative). Lacking wit, humor, or profundity, they hang in the air stupidly; do we really want to perpetuate age-old stereotypes that our modern age has, or should have, rejected soundly? (Of course the trouble is that the audience—and many of my fellow theatre reviewers—are in fact laughing at, enjoying, and even honoring the resonance of these mostly offensive sentiments; Houston: we have a problem.)
It might be possible to empathize with Constance if she were shown to be taking some kind of emotional journey in the play. But, to cadge from Dorothy Parker, Kate Burton barely makes it even from A to B in the role of Constance, starting out as jaunty and confident and coarse and ending up, well, jaunty and confident and coarse. Her exuberance and utter lack of subtlety put me in mind of Debbie Reynolds as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. An unintended side-effect of Burton's overacting is concomitant overcompensation on the part of everyone else on stage: genuinely fine actors like Lynn Redgrave (who plays Constance's mother), Enid Graham (Constance's sister), and Michael Cumpsty (John) mug and wink and race around the stage just to keep up with their braying co-star. Director Mark Brokaw has apparently not tried very hard to rein any of them in.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's lack of judgment in putting on this play is equaled by the tastelessness of the decor. Allen Moyer has provided one of the singly ugliest sets I've ever seen on a stage—a tatty Oriental motif in bright jade green and mauve that would certainly not inspire me to hire Constance to decorate even a doghouse. The costumes, by Michael Krass, are similarly awful: Burton is dressed in shades of peach for two of the three acts, which is perhaps the one color that her fair complexion can't accommodate; Graham is made up in mannish suits a la Gertrude Stein; Kathryn Meisle (as Marie-Louise) and Kathleen McNenny (as Barbara) are gotten up in clownishly garish parodies of '20s flapper clothes; and poor Redgrave can barely even move in the hobble skirt that she's stuck with for her two-second appearance in Act Three.
All in all, I had the worst kind of evening at The Constant Wife: an irredeemably wasted one.