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The Constant Wife at Roundabout Theatre Company

- Backstage with the Playwrights

Roundabout Theatre Company

Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy

The Constant Wife
W. Somerset Maugham

Lynn Redgrave as Mrs. Culver
Kate Burton as Constance Middleton
Michael Cumpsty as John Middleton
John Dossett as Bernard Kersal

Kathryn Meisle as Marie-Louise Durham
Enid Graham as Martha Culver
John Ellison Conlee as Mortimer Durham
Denis Holmes as Bentley the Butler
Kathleen McKenny as Barbara Fawcett

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street

Directed by Mark Brokaw

Set Design: Allen Moyer
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Original Music: David Van Tieghem
Sound Design: David Van Tieghem and Jill BC Du Boff
Hair and Wig Design: Paul Huntley
Production Stage Manager: Lisa Buxbaum
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA and Mele Nagler, CSA
Technical Supervisor: Steve Beers
Press: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
General Managers: Sydney Beers and Nichole Larson
Founding Director: Gene Feist
Assoc. Artistic Director: Scott Ellis
Director of Marketing: David B. Steffen

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
August 5, 2005

The Constant Wife, a comedy of manners, set in a 1926 London drawing room, decorated in the finest floral fabrics and green lacquered Chinoiserie, performed with the finest of British accents and mannerisms, and illustrating the chic, fine fashions of the era, concerns the known and unknown relationships of a prissy and proud mother of a daughter, “well-married” to a surgeon, the “well-married” wife, a business tycoon and his wife (who happens to be the surgeon’s lover), an international financier, the financier’s old flame (who happens to be the surgeon’s wife), a sophisticated “spinster” sister, and a successful businesswoman (interior decorator). A butler, named Bentley, rounds out this British cast of characters.

But, this is neither Feydeau nor Moliere, with French doors opening and closing and lovers hiding in closets. This is a British play of fashionable and fascinating language, with the action, repressed as it may be (one set, and it’s the very polished drawing room), mostly in one’s imagination. We might be shocked, not by the marital infidelities and bold behavior, but by the concept that in 1926 Maugham wrote such a modern play of a woman’s right to equality through financial freedom. That financial freedom would come from accepting an offer to join a small decorating firm and the resulting opportunity to pay her husband for her “keep”.

Lynn Redgrave, in long capes and richly decorated suits, all in period fashion, is a prominent presence and has some of the best lines. When asked by her daughter, Constance, how one knows one is in love, she refers to one’s ability to “share his toothbrush”. Ms. Redgrave, of course, British to the core, at once exudes an air of authority and vulnerability, as she carries herself with characteristic class. Ms. Redgrave, with Kate Burton (playing her daughter, Constance Middleton), was a Tony nominee announcer this past June, perhaps as a promotion for these substantial Broadway roles.

Kate Burton, as Constance, the conflicted wife of a straying surgeon, was all ice in her relationship with her husband and slightly, but not much, warmer with her lover-to-be. Interestingly, she seemed the warmest with her “best friend” Marie-Louise, even after she revealed that she knew Marie-Louise was between the sheets with her husband. This was a cool, calculating lady, planning her revenge slowly and deliberately. And, this was 1926! Kathryn Meisle, as this false friend, no bimbo by today’s standards, wore flapper style clothes in innocent pastels. There was just as little chance Marie-Louise would leave her wealthy, doting husband as there was that Constance would leave her sumptuous drawing room, at least for good.

Returning on a Broadway stage, after a successful run in Democracy, were both Michael Cumpsty as surgeon, husband, John Middleton and John Dossett as financier, old flame, Bernard Kersal. Mr. Cumpsty knew when to be proper and when to be promiscuous (in language, only), all the while performing with perfection of presence and poise. Michael Cumpsty masters the moment, and his personality shifts are priceless. John Dossett, as Bernard Kersal, is the only character allowed to pour passion into his performance, and that passion, although seething beneath the surface, was ever-present, whenever he appeared. In fact, at the very moment of his arrival, Constance waved a silk handkerchief, as a signal to her possessive mother to leave the room immediately, as Constance wanted this man to herself.

Enid Graham, as Constance’s “spinster” sister, Martha, was viciously jealous of her sister’s lifestyle and eager to undo it with “the truth”. How taken aback she was to learn that her sister was neither deceived nor destroyed, but, rather, self-preserving and soon to be self-indulgent. Ms. Graham was well cast in this role of sour sibling. Kathleen McKenny, as Barbara, the successful decorator, whose assistance secures Constance’s financial and marital freedom, has a minor role, as Ms. McKenny appears as the loner, an under-developed personality. John Ellison Conlee as Mortimer Durham, the “cuckolded” business tycoon husband (in spats and brown tweeds) of ditsy, but daring, Marie-Louise, has just the right amounts of buffoon and bravado that allow him to be deceived in such a way, that’s a win-win for both Mortimer and wife, Marie-Louise.

Denis Holmes, as Bentley the butler, in white gloves and black tux, is a charming caricature with class. Allen Moyer’s sets, with different, more decorous, pillows and vases in the third act, and Michael Krass’ costumes, with tweedy suits and coats for the men and 1920’s hats and dresses for the women, are all exquisite and elegant. Deborah Hecht, dialect coach, worked overtime, as elocution and diction were perfected and artistic, and director, Mark Brokaw, is to be commended for turning two hours of drawing room “discussion” into two hours of drawing room drama.

Kudos to Somerset Maugham, and kudos to Roundabout Theatre.

The Constant Wife
Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at