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What bounces like Coward and bites like Shaw? A Somerset Maugham comedy, at least according to the evidence at the Olney Theatre Center. The Constant Wife, Maugham’s 1920s frolic through the minefields of spousal affection and sexual politics, plays brisk and pretty and witty in a handsome revival staged smoothly by John Going. It’s got a swift and salutary smack or two, as well, for anyone complacent enough to think the battle of the sexes is over.
Maugham’s unlikely conqueror is one Constance Middleton, the superbly poised wife of a prosperous London surgeon. As played at Olney by the ideally cast Julie-Ann Elliott, she’s a graceful creature whose impeccably furnished drawing room and effortlessly chic afternoon ensembles (even her hats seem resolutely well-mannered) reflect the imperturbably tidy mind of their mistress. What could possibly disrupt such perfect equanimity? The news that her perfect gentleman of a husband has been carrying on with a perfectly shameless blonde—or at least that’s what her perfectly outraged sister (the comically indignant Allyson Currin) seems to hope when she arrives to deliver the news. Their sturdy, old-fashioned mother (a winningly wise Nancy Robinette) intervenes, forbidding the revelation on the grounds that wifely ignorance frequently equals wifely bliss. But soon enough the other woman’s suspicious husband turns up, forcing level-headed Constance to reveal that—surprise!—she’s known all along, and she couldn’t care less.
What accounts for Constance’s aplomb, in a situation that’s traditionally thought to call for anger, is what makes The Constant Wife such a subversive little comedy: Constance coolly reasons that she’s got a handsome husband, a swank house, and a pretty sweet lifestyle—and that since she fell out of love with wandering John about the time he fell out of love with her, she’s not going to make a fuss about a diversionary thrill now and again. Cue much astonishment, plus a twist or two for the scenes still to come, all framing a cheekily progressive argument couched in dialogue as nimbly rhythmic as that Act 2 Wimbledon match the principals never quite manage to attend.
Maugham’s sympathies are with the unsentimental missus, which must have seemed awfully bracing for his ’20s audiences, the still-fresh heresies of gloomy Ibsen and that cranky old socialist Shaw notwithstanding. Even now, in fact, Maugham’s jaded observations on the transactional nature of marriage come across as cheerfully blunt. And a sophisticatedly unruly woman who brings the same nonchalantly ruthless reasoning as a man to the question of whether sexual fidelity and emotional constancy are one? She’d make waves on the talk-show circuit today, I’d bet—in fact I seem to recall that there’s some debate about whether such a woman could be elected president.
If the archly modern attitudes and the brittle, Wilde-at-heart banter ultimately aren’t quite dazzling enough to blind audiences to the thinness of Maugham’s characterizations—James Wolk’s airy set offers glimpses of a world beyond the Middleton manse, but the people there seem to have only a passing acquaintance with it—The Constant Wife still adds up to snappy entertainment. Elliott, in particular, is delightful, swanning elegantly around in Liz Covey’s delicious period costumes; her Constance manages the men, outmaneuvers the women, and stays always and effortlessly a step ahead of everyone else onstage. (She doesn’t so much as sit down without a manipulative flourish.) Robinette is droll as ever, Ashley West percolates amusingly as the legally blonde mistress of Michael McKenzie’s convincingly clueless John Middleton, and Helen Hedman brings a sly composure to the part of Constance’s canny businesswoman friend, who helps our heroine arrange a fiscal position to support her philosophical one.
The odd man out is John Wojda as Constance’s faithful admirer, with whom she intends to take advantage of her new freedom while Dr. Hubby takes a turn tending the home fires. Wojda’s swain is ill at ease in the rarefied air of Maugham’s drawing room; it’s the sort of place where people cross rooms “significantly” and light cigarettes “savagely” (it says so, right there in the stage directions), but Wojda’s Bernard seems too heavy-footed to be the kind of man Constance would dally with—even for a lark.
The bigger trouble, though, is that while Maugham was clever about giving Constance a storyline and a way with bons mots, he didn’t bother giving her much of an emotional arc. Constant she claims to be, and constant she indubitably is: She’s the same admirably sensible creature at the play’s end that she’s been since the beginning, unruffled, unworried, and maybe just a little too implacable in the face of all the messy human weakness around her for us to like her wholeheartedly.