If you’ve been cheating on the missus, The Constant Wife is the show for you. John Middleton has been sleeping with his wife’s best friend. When his deceived spouse finds out, not only does the aptly named Constance stay with the cad, she also helps him evade trouble, winning his devotion and earning herself a spot in the Cool Wife Hall of Fame. It’s an unfaithful husband’s dream.
For about an hour. Then intermission ends, and Constance begins spouting some discomfiting views about marriage. She’s tired of being the modern wife, “a prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.” She plans to win her financial independence, the better to exercise her “sexual independence.”
Somerset Maugham’s play premiered in 1926, a descendant of Ibsen’s revolutionary A Doll’s House but not an imitator. It’s essentially a comedy of manners, down to its tell-tale particulars: crisp accents, cumbersome clothes, outrageous wallpaper. It’s funny, but that doesn’t mean it’s frivolous. Even today, when we’re awash in hyperbole about what does and doesn’t constitute marriage, its arguments still provoke.
Should Constance stay with her cheating husband or go? Lynn Redgrave is a bit young and vivacious to play Constance’s domineering mother, but she has the right imperturbable wit to dispense Mrs. Culver’s terrible advice. “Men were meant by nature to be wicked and delightful and deceive their wives,” she tells her daughter. “And women were meant to be virtuous and forgiving and to suffer verbosely.”
Constance rejects this antique view. The delightful Kate Burton plays her as a modern stoic, using her wit and bright smile as shields. The Middletons don’t love each other anymore, but they did for five years. For this, Constance believes, they should count themselves lucky. Even their loveless marriage is worth keeping, so as not to lose “a comfortable home, a considerable part of [my] income and the advantage of having a man.” To her appalled critics, she insists that she has “the ideal marriage.”
Without being explicit, Maugham suggests that the fault lies not in this marriage, but in marriage itself. When Constance’s old flame Bernard (John Dossett) shows up, she sees a chance for a new definition of marital bliss—one that reaches back to the old sense that marriage is an economic arrangement, and reaches forward to our own time with the idea that the individual happiness of each spouse is more important than the laws of marriage itself.
Mark Brokaw’s lively, stylish production can feel too brisk at times: An argument so bold could use more dashes of real emotion to keep us engaged. But the Roundabout deserves credit for resisting the urge to cast hack celebrities, instead hiring bona fide stage talents like Michael Cumpsty as the befuddled John, Kathryn Meisle as the flighty mistress, and the inspired John Ellison Conlee as her cuckold. Like Doubt, the play achieves that rarest of Broadway unions: It makes you laugh, then it makes you think.
Private Fears in Public Places is a meditation on “Eleanor Rigby,” or might as well be. All the lonely people in Alan Ayckbourn’s play are Londoners, sad, isolated, and without prospects. Ambrose tends bar and cares for his ailing, irascible father. Office clerk Charlotte says she goes everywhere with “Alice”—that would be her car. Engaged couple Nicola and Dan are too busy falling apart to enjoy what sounds, to New York ears, like extreme good fortune: Though he’s unemployed, they’re shopping for a three-bedroom apartment.
The indefatigable Ayckbourn has written nearly 70 farces and middle-class comedies, and you can sense the refinement of his craft here. Though the stories unfold at an unhurried pace, and the characters are mired in solitude, the show never feels ponderous. Even in the mantle of the serious dramatist, Ayckbourn is still willing to flash the lacy red underthings of the sex farceur.
As director, Ayckbourn conveys his characters’ isolation with grace: The stage is divided into small playing areas, and when the actors shift from scene to scene, they sometimes walk right past one another without acknowledging it. Ayckbourn is lucky to have actors from his artistic home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in England, introduce this play to New York: Their seamless ensemble work inspires awe, turning the show’s little slivers of sadness into something broader and more poignant, a panorama of heartache.
The Constant Wife
By W. Somerset Maugham.
American Airlines Theatre. Through August 14.
Private Fears in Public Places
By Alan Ayckbourn.
Brits Off Broadway Festival.
59E59 Theaters. Through July 3.