THE CONSTANT WIFE
Vancouver’s surprising Somerset Maugham season continues at the Stanley with The Constant Wife, a 1926 marital revenge play disguised as conventional comedy of manners. It’s surprising to see two Maughams in as many months (after United Players’ The Circle in December). And what a pleasant shock to discover the bite behind the bark and bluster of a playwright whose work has long been considered the epitome of “museum theatre.”
Maugham is sometimes dismissed as a rich man’s Oscar Wilde, dressing up formulaic ironies and second-rate witticisms in plummy accents, gilded drawing room settings and expensive costumes. The visual pleasures of Morris Panych’s Arts Club production are not inconsiderable (as a Maugham character might say): Ken MacDonald’s striking all-white set with its deco accents, and Nancy Bryant’s delicious period costumes.
But the real heart of this show is its sexual politics, the careful strategies behind the apparent blithe complacency of the title character, beautifully played by Shaw Festival veteran Nicole Underhay. Constance maintains her constancy to the end. She slips the coup de grace to her cheating hubby and treacherous best friend like a stiletto through the ribs, with the toothsome smile and perfect manners of the very well bred.
At first, everyone but Constance appears to know that her physician husband John (Ted Cole) is playing Dr. Feelgood with her friend Marie-Louise (Celine Stubel at her most adorable). Sister Martha (Moya O’Connell) wants to see Constance ditch the cad. But mother (a wonderfully imperious Bridget O’Sullivan) argues that that’s simply what men do, and wives should just close their eyes to it.
Constance appears to be her mother’s daughter. She keeps former beau Bernard (Mike Wasko) around, but at a chaste distance. And when Marie-Louise’s hapless husband Mortimer (Mark Burgess) reveals his wife’s and her husband’s affair, Constance covers for them both. Even when she knows the bitter truth she seems reconciled to it, even jolly.
But once she takes a lucrative job offered her by a businesswoman friend (Katey Wright) and becomes economically independent, it’s only a matter of time until she gives Dr. John some of his own medicine.
Underhay’s breezy, playful Constance sets the tone, and director Panych keeps everything light and buoyant. There’s a terrific scene late in the play where Constance tells Marie-Louise how beastly and hypocritical she is as the two lounge affectionately on the sofa together, their smiles never lapsing.
Maugham gets off some fine zingers, too, mostly at the expense of the men. “Mortimer is no fool,” says Constance, knowing full well he is. “Oh no,” replies Marie-Louise. “For a man he is frightfully clever.”