Sunday, April 17, 2005

Play: Foolish Consistencies

The Constant Wife by W, Somerset Maugham, Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Seattle Rep, April 2 - May 1, 2005

Here's the short version:

He: I am having an affair
She: I know
She: I am also having an affair, but for better reasons than you.

And that's about it. This is one of those plays where the actors are talking to the audience, not to other actors. You can tell they're talking to the audience because the blocking puts them turned towards the audience, and their explanations evolve into short societal essays - long-form non-sequiturs. In fact, if you want to write like Maugham, add 2d12 words to each sentence. Then watch the actors race to finish their lines before they run out of breath and pass out. This is Shaw all over again, without the potential blessing of a plane hitting the house and killing all the characters.

So, Constance (Ellen Karas) is the wife of John (Jonathan Fried), who is stepping out with Marie-Louise (Bhama Roget*). The secret of the affair is out and mother, sister, and friend all descend on the house to comfort, discomfort, and provide help for the apparently clueless Constance. But Constance is not clueless, and rather than being in denial she accepts the state of affairs, translates her situation into a set of economic balances, and then proceeds to take bloodless revenge in the third act, both putting John through the wringer, while denying him even the satisfaction of thinking that her actions are some form of emotional vengeance.

OK, this is an alien world for me, a place where where gender roles are fixed, indiscretions must be winked at, places must be kept, and reputations must be preserved. The John/Constance relationship is stressed as being caring, affectionate, sweet, and while not passionate is hardly a sham. The relationship is half-full as well as half-empty. They love each other but are not in love with each other. And it seems that Constance is taking the long way around to justify her own planned infidelity, but this is a domain where the proper forms must be observed. Indeed, it is her reasonableness which was the shocking bit 75 years ago, though it rattles emptily today.

Despite this, it was an enjoyable afternoon. The direction is broad and comic, and watching Fried self-destruct in the final act was a delightful comical disaster (and may have wandered far from author's original intent). Most of the characters were horrible people, but the actors were excellent. In fact, they were too good in some cases. Mark Elliot Wilson, as Constance's earnest potential lover, sells the idea that he is NOT going off to Europe with Contance in the third act so well that for a moment, you wonder if all of the Constant Wife's announced plans are merely a head-game she's playing with her philandering spouse. There are funny bits, nice pieces of action, and long Wildean observations.

Yet the center does not hold for me. So I'm wrestling with it for the moment.

More later,

* Ms. Roget's mother actually wrote me after the review of Noises Off- hi Betsey! Bhama carries off the role of the other woman with an open-eyed, Hugh Laurie-esque flair that captures the supposed shallowness of that generation (Think Bertie Wooster from the old Wodehouse stories). She and the other actors were very, very good. My fretting is with the material, not those that presented it.