- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

The hanky-panky of such celebrities as Jude Law, Brangelina and Richie Sambora seems so skanky compared to the discreet rustling of underthings in Somerset Maugham’s upper crust comedy, “The Constant Wife.”

In Olney Theatre Center’s refined and sprightly production, directed by John Going, sex lurks under every tufted cushion in the Middletons’ tony London house. Not that you’d know it by the look of things. Instead of “The Constant Wife” being “Caligula” with finger bowls, everyone behaves beautifully, so beautifully that the highest accolade a man pays to a woman is “Darling, you’re a brick.”

The brick in question is Constance Middleton (Julie-Ann Elliott), the self-possessed and privileged wife of a successful London surgeon. In Constance’s 15 years of marriage to John (Michael McKenzie), he’s had a wandering eye for 10. But when he makes the mistake of being incautious in an affair with her close friend, fluffy flapper Marie-Louise (Ashley West), Constance decides that infidelity is one thing, but airing your dirty chemises in public is quite another.

She greets the news about John from her mother, Mrs. Culver (Nancy Robinette), and insufferably priggish sister, Martha (Allyson Currin), not with tears and hysteria, but with the coolness of an oyster placed on a bed of rock salt. This is not ruin, but opportunity.

After all, it is the 1920s — a woman can have a career, and a certain degree of financial and sexual independence.

“The Constant Wife” deals with somewhat shocking insights into adultery and the ice-capped circuitry of the female mind by cloaking everything in elegant wit and the sort of tasteful wealth you’d find in a “Town and Country” spread. No one breaks a sweat; even John’s fit of pique near the end when he discovers that Constance has elegantly trapped him into a corner has a gentlemanly undoneness about it.

No ripped white T-shirt and shouting “Stella” here.

The women’s roles are chilly — ranging from Constance’s arctic sophistication and Marie-Louise’s pragmatic appraisal of her hotness to Mrs. Culver, the sanguine voice of reason and genteel cynicism. The men are more warmish in their emotions — John in his weakness for comely women and Bernard Kersal (John Wojda) in his long-simmering passion for Constance.

Mr. Maugham’s cucumber sandwiches brand of cool is in abundance in this play, and you take pleasure (refined, of course) in such quips as “frankness is the pose of the moment,” “decency died with dear Queen Victoria,” and perhaps the most famous line, “I may be unfaithful, but I am constant.” At times, it is almost too polite.

Everyone tries so hard at brittle chicness you feel trapped in a room of rarefied, dead air.

The pervasive coldness of the production extends to James Wolk’s well-appointed but forbidding drawing room set, although costume designer Liz Covey’s stylish variations on the drop-waisted frock bring splashes of color and life. The actors deliver their lines with exquisite drollery, especially Miss Robinette as the cool-headed Mrs. Culver and Miss Elliott as the cuckold who sees that economic independence is the greatest liberation of all. Miss Elliott’s crisp, classy performance arouses no empathy for Constance, only enormous admiration.

Sisters have been doing it for themselves for nearly a century now, and plays such as “The Constant Wife” may seem quaint and mannered in its treatment of working women and the institution of marriage. Olney’s production gives the same retro fantasy thrill as watching a classic movie from the 1920s — you thoroughly enjoy basking in the wit and spending a few golden hours with the socialites and swells. It’s all very swell — elegant, but soulless.

***

WHAT: “The Constant Wife” by Somerset Maugham

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m., Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, excluding next Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 11.

TICKETS: $25 to $46

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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