After taking in the Blasey Ford-Kavanaugh hearing last week, I’d have been happy to watch a woman on stage whaling away at a man — pretty much any rich, entitled man — with a huge, stinking, three-week-old turbot. And perhaps it was the raw memory of Brett Kavanaugh’s self-pitying rage and the lies and bullying of Republican senators that inspired the pure delight with which the audience greeted the DCPA Theatre Company’s production of Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife on the night I attended. There was applause and laughter for almost every line, and at the end, an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Director Shelley Butler has staged a terrific production. The actors are all poised, strong and eminently watchable, with excellent comic timing, particularly Gretchen Egolf, who carries the central role of Constance with elegance. You can’t help noticing the exquisite design and colors of Takeshi Kata’s in-the-round set, the elements of turquoise, the yellow roses, the shimmering white flowers of the second act. I also spent a good bit of the evening admiring Sara Ryung Clement’s costume design — the simple lines of some costumes, the crazy glitter and rustle of others, the interesting hats and witty shoes — worn with style by the women. All of these elements are crucial to a satisfying drawing-room comedy, helping to define a highly artificial world while pleasurable in themselves.
But this is just gorgeous decoration for a script that, no matter how much it’s held up as an example of early-twentieth-century feminism and an encouraging voice for women today, is hollow at the core. Constance’s husband, John, has been having an affair with her best friend, Maria-Louise. As the play opens, Constance’s mother, Mrs. Culver, sister Martha and businesswoman friend Barbara are wondering how to break the news to her — an unnecessary task, since she has known about John’s infidelity for months and, to the surprise and disapproval of Martha and Barbara, is happy to have it continue. Her husband continues to provide her with a comfortable, indolent life, and though she’s still very fond of him, passion flew out the window after the first five years. Why shouldn’t he bestow the sexual appetites she has no further use for on someone else? By the second act, money and its connection to independence has entered the picture. At the act’s opening, Constance is packing for the six-week holiday in Italy she feels she’s earned after working a year for Barbara. Most important, she’s managed to repay John a lump sum for her keep, and now feels free of all constraint.
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This is the plot point that gets critics — who often compare the first-act dialogue to Wilde — to bring in comparisons to Shaw, who wrote many incisive things about women and marriage in Victorian England. Like Shaw himself, Maugham’s Constance thinks of marriage as a form of prostitution. But from Joan of Arc to Major Barbara, Cleopatra to Eliza Doolittle, Shaw’s women are complex, strong people — while Constance seems interested in very little outside her marital arrangement and her lover (yes, she does acquire one). Her bons mots are no more pithy than this: “They’re like little boys, men. Sometimes, of course, they’re rather naughty and you have to pretend to be angry with them. ... They have all the charming qualities that accompany general incompetence.” She regards Maria-Louise, supposedly her best friend, with bemused condescension. The character seems to have no insides; she’s all affect. The other characters are equally flat, though Carol Schultz does makes Mrs. Culver somewhat human, and there’s a charming surprise delivered by Wayne Kennedy as the butler, Bentley — a surprise I’m pretty sure Maugham didn’t write. Otherwise, there are no surprises in the repetitive and rather static plot, which is primarily a continuing demonstration that Constance can manipulate and control anyone she chooses.
I’d love to see this production’s level of talent, professionalism and meticulousness in the service of a better script. Even if it doesn’t include a turbot.
The Constant Wife, presented by the DCPA Theatre Company through October 21, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.