Theater Reviews

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Pasadena Playhouse
Through June 10


In the program guide for the Pasadena Playhouse's new production of "The Constant Wife," director Art Manke makes an eloquent case for focusing on the repression of individual and personal freedoms. Unfortunately, in making sure that the play will be relevant to a politically correct, 21st century Southern California audience, Manke misses the sophisticated brilliance, chic and glitter that the play needs and which the writer must have intended when he wrote it in 1926.

Manke's take has the virtue of allowing the audience to enjoy the play's clearly articulated and reasoned feminist element ("A modern wife," Mrs. Constance Middleton says without rancor, "is a prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods"). But it shows little of the dark side one might expect from reading Manke's printed introduction connecting the feminist theme to W. Somerset Maugham's closeted homosexuality.

Left on its merits, this "Wife" is little more than a moderately enjoyable vehicle for Megan Gallagher as Constance Middleton, the wife of an unfaithful London physician (Stephen Caffrey) and the center of a social circle of sophisticated middle-class types who sport their English accents as if they were badges of elocutionary honor. As an increasing number of theatrical heroines already were doing, Constance learns wisely and well that financial independence can provide a very satisfactory alternative to conventional true love and romance.

Gallagher certainly has the command and dignity to handle the situation Constance finds herself in, but in making the outward transformation from wife-as-minor appliance to fully liberated female, she forgets to make us care more than philosophically. She does occasionally flash a smile that could melt butter, and the catalytic return of an old suitor is a sign that she can still make hearts flutter. But the triumph of her feminism is not, especially in her privileged domestic context, dramatically inspiring (and surely she deserved a new hairstyle to symbolize her hard-won freedom).

Although there are obvious overtones of Wilde and Shaw in his tone and style, Maugham is content to be more civilized and less mind-bending than either. The play is cleverly constructed and full of English types whom Americans, especially regarding self-conscious accents, find amusing.

The static first act, used to set up the second half's delicious unraveling of mysteries, introduces Constance's eccentric, wizened mother (a totally delightful Carolyn Seymour), her bitchy flapper sister (an adorable Monette Magrath adorned with tons of eye shadow), the obsessive suitor (Kaleo Griffith, cigar-store wooden until, at a crucial point in the action, he cracks a magnificent, reptilian smile that is itself worth the price of admission), and an incongruously mature if definitely dizzy "other woman" (played for laughs plus bits of regret and reality by Libby West).

With their energy and charm, Ann Marie Lee (as a friend) and a virtuosic Andrew Borba (as a wronged husband) keep the first act from falling entirely asleep, while Caffrey (who saved the day last fall in "Bach at Leipzig" at the South Coast Repertory) and John-David Keller as the butler admirably sparkle and bristle in their formulaic roles.

The spacious Playhouse stage is used for the play's one set, the Middletons' Harley Street living room, which hardly looks as if it were furnished by someone who gains her independence as an interior decorator. The costumes, including some remarkably ugly hats, capture the period, but the music is an uncomfortable retro mix that adds little to the evening's mood.

THE CONSTANT WIFE
Presented by Pasadena Playhouse
Credits:
Playwright: W. Somerset Maugham
Director: Art Manke
Scenic/costume designer: Angela Balogh Calin
Lighting designer: Peter Maradudin
Sound designer: Steven Cahill
Casting: Michael Donovan
Stage manager: Lea Chazin
Assistant stage manager: Hethyr Verhoef
Cast:
Constance Middleton: Megan Gallagher
John Middleton: Stephen Caffrey
Mrs. Culver: Carolyn Seymour
Marie-Louise Durham: Libby West
Martha Culver: Monette Magrath
Barbara Fawcett: Ann Marie Lee
Bernard Kersal: Kaleo Griffith
Mortimer Durham: Andrew Borba
Bentley: John-David Keller
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