April 9, 2003

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Terms of endearment
ACT explores the marriage contract in W. Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife

By Robert Avila


W. SOMERSET Maugham's keen social eye, sharp wit, and lenient attitude toward human nature lend The Constant Wife a Wildean flavor that appeals despite the ups and downs of American Conservatory Theater's current production. One reason the play holds up so well is that marriage, its primary target, hasn't changed all that much. Nor have attitudes toward it. Even in a postfeminist age, audiences can be suitably provoked by the playwright's dispassionate assertion of marriage as essentially an economic transaction while sharing in his sentimental attachment to the institution itself.

London's Constance (Ellen Karas) and John Middleton (Jonathan Fried) seem an ideal couple: rich, cultured, and basking in 15 years of mutual affection. In fact, John is having an affair with Constance's best friend, the perky, flagrantly "blond" Marie-Louise (a sprightly Ashley West). Constance's mother (Beth Dixon), sister, Martha (Emily Ackerman), and friend Barbara (Stacy Ross) are all abuzz over the affair, but Constance won't intimate whether or not she knows of it – until Marie-Louise's husband, Mortimer (Charles Dean), makes a public accusation that leaves her no choice. To general bemusement, instead of accepting the accusation, Constance covers up for her guilt-stricken husband. For in her clear-eyed view of things, a man who supports a wife has "bought a toy, and if he no longer wants to play with it why should he?"

Constance's equanimity is a source of wonder to all, but she proves passionately convinced that her financial dependence entitles her husband to her fidelity, though neither of them is still in love with the other. When Bernard (Mark Eliot Wilson), an old beau, shows up from China for a conveniently temporary stay, Constance turns the tables once more by planning a principled act of revenge. The play, however, shies away from too radical a conclusion, mildly trading on the idea of marriage as prostitution to attack the double standards surrounding infidelity. The institution is not brought down in the end, only made more honest.

Director Kyle Donnelly keeps Maugham's tightly drawn 1926 farce appropriately lighthearted but generates surprisingly little stage chemistry along the way. Karas's Constance exudes a gentle charm and probity, but she lacks the vivaciousness that would warrant the rapturous devotion of the suave and passionate Bernard. But verve is a more general problem here. It's sometimes difficult to believe the characters are really intimates. Fried, as the jaunty but feckless John, is a notable exception. Discombobulated by shame or erupting with volcanic jealousy, he fills the stage admirably and seems genuinely engaged with his fellow actors. Moreover, Dixon's dowdy mother reflects a beguiling mixture of mischievousness and addled dignity, while Dean's Mortimer, a cuckold aquiver with indignation, is another delight.

Cut of the cloth

If honesty saves marriage in The Constant Wife, it leads in the opposite direction in Rebecca Gilman's new play. Blue Surge, making its West Coast debut at the Magic Theatre, deconstructs its own ideal couple against the economics of sex. This time the pieces are allowed to fall where they may, without the need to restore order in the end, lending the play a dark humor that underlines the complexities of class in the frustrated desires of characters hemmed in by emotional and financial deprivations.

Curt (John Flanagan), a working-class cop, plans to marry Beth (Corie Henninger), an upper-middle-class artist. They have their future well planned, including Curt's eventual promotion to lieutenant. But again, things are not as solid as they seem. Significantly, Curt is already anticipating spending his retirement as a volunteer nature guide, and he assiduously memorizes the specifications of flora to prepare for it.

After a botched raid on a massage parlor, Curt takes an avuncular interest in a young prostitute named Sandy (Kirsten Roeters) and finds himself irresistibly attracted to her. That Sandy is about half his age is never an issue. Their ability to relate to one another rests on their mutual class background. Clearly cowed by his relationship with Beth, Curt not only feels comfortable sharing his dreams with Sandy, but he also seems eager to assume the role of male guardian. Without a significant income, however, Curt cannot convince Sandy to leave her job as a prostitute, which remains her only guarantee of independence.

The problem is foreshadowed in the risqué opening scene, when Curt's inept partner and best friend, Doug (Darren Bridgett), gloats over Heather (Jibz Cameron), the enraged prostitute he's just entrapped (and will soon start dating). Doug tells her, "I don't care if you respect the man as long as you respect the badge." It's a particularly funny line since Doug is not wearing any clothes, let alone a badge. But it's also prescient. The play will explore the ways money and class impact male identity and the relations between the sexes – in other words, the extent to which the clothes really do make the man.

Blue Surge (the title comes from Curt misunderstanding the title of Duke Ellington's "Blue Serge" and points to the class-inflected gap between the characters' dreams and experience) unfolds smoothly and intelligently and is wonderfully acted. Amy Glazer, who directed the Magic premiere of Gilman's The American in Me as well as TheatreWorks' production of Spinning into Butter, gets the most from the playwright's vigorous, incisive, frequently witty dialogue while ensuring a lively pace. The characters, however, register more as well-drawn figments of the playwright's imagination, too narrowly contrived to feel genuine. This doesn't make them any less fun to watch, but it does diminish the force with which the play broaches its intriguing themes.

'The Constant Wife' runs through April 27. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.); Sun., 2 p.m., Geary Theater, 415 Geary, S.F. $11-$61. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org.
'Blue Surge' runs through April 20. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., Magic Theatre, Bldg. D, Fort Mason Center, Marina at Laguna, S.F. $17-$37. (415) 441-8822.