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The Constant Wife: I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Don't Wait Up For Me

I suppose if you live long enough in a liberal city like New York, and especially if your social circle contains an abundance of "artistic types", you're bound to run into a couple or several who are happily in the midst of an open relationship. That is, a marriage or any other sort of romantic partnership where those involved are free to take on other lovers as they please while remaining in a committed bond. It's not for everybody, but those who practice it (safely, of course) tell me it works for them.

W. Somerset Maugham may not have been seriously championing the concept of open marriage when he wrote The Constant Wife (but then, it was 1926 so who knows), but what has generally been taken as a sort of "feminist revenge" drawing room comedy may also be interpreted as common sense guide to making marriages more sustaining and fulfilling for both men and women by allowing commitment to be less restrictive. Ideas about relationships that were most likely intended to have audiences laughing at their absurdity had at least one women sitting nearby me practically pumping her fist in the air with approval.

But then, there's so much to be excited about in director Mark Brokaw's flawless production that any amount of fist pumping among audiences members is quite understandable, even if you're just enjoying it as frothy summer fun.

When the very symbolically named Constance Middleton (Kate Burton) finds that her husband (Michael Cumpsty) is having an affair with her best friend (Kathryn Meisle), her loved ones expect her to be shattered. But no, Constance seems to be holding up rather perkily thanks to her socialist view of marriage. (You can interpret the following as an attempt to cover up her misery if you choose.) After 15 years together, she says it's quite natural and acceptable for a man to look for a little variety, as long as he's considerate enough not to flaunt it in his wife's face. "It all comes down to the economic situation.", she explains. If Constance were a working-class woman who cooked and cleaned and cared for the children she says she could demand sexual fidelity in exchange, but since hubby's thriving medical practice pays for servants to tend to all the household responsibilities, she believes it's only fair that she look the other way. After all, in all other matters their marriage is thriving. They're the best of chums who, if the passion has mutually wained a bit, still adore each other's company and intellectual stimulation. A modern wife who accepts such "payment" and denies her husband the opportunity for sexual gratification is, "like a prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods", she reasons.

But when a long-time admirer (John Dossett) returns from, as Ira Gershwin would put it, somewhere in China, Constance starts feeling the happy pangs of delight that come with being the object of one's unending desire and concocts a method by which she could preserve her marriage while carrying on her own affairs, satisfying both herself and Karl Marx.

Kate Burton positively sparkles in the title role, giving an intelligently light touch to Maugham's generously clever text. Utterly gracious and civil throughout, even when partaking in some broad physical comedy, Burton nearly floats through the play dropping well-aimed bon mots with captivating glee. As her husband, Michael Cumpsty provides a perfect foil, mixing eloquent charm with moments of bluster and buffoonery. Their second act scenes together provide explosive comedic chemistry.

As Constance's mother, Lynn Redgrave serves as the deliciously droll messenger of Maugham's more acerbic insights on sexual relations. In his one scene, John Ellison Conlee is hilariously needy as the cuckolded husband of Cumpsty's lover and John Dossett is a likable lug as Burton's admirer.

Allen Moyer's funny and fascinating set features a collection Chinese style green lacquered pieces placed before wallpaper that's crowded with birds and foliage. Michael Krass' costumes are a smart combination of 1920's styles from traditional to modern.

If dust had ever gathered on this 79-year-old comedy of manners, the Roundabout's new production has blown off the last remaining specs. The Constant Wife is a first class mounting in every respect and welcome as cool breezes during a muggy New York summer.


Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Kate Burton and Michael Cumpsty
Bottom: Kate Burton and Lynn Redgrave


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From This Author Michael Dale