George Bernard Shaw led a more open life than W. Somerset Maugham, and in his own time he was marginalized, while Maugham's career soared. By the time his The Constant Wife premiered in 1926, Maugham was a mainstream playwright and novelist who passed as a married man and father, kept his homosexuality a secret, and could be discreet enough even as a celebrity to work for British intelligence during the Bolshevik revolution. (He would spy again during World War II, and serve as Ian Fleming's early model for James Bond.) Such cool circumspection was beyond Shaw. His frank opinions, his open dalliances with Victorian free love, and his unruly beard ensured that he would mainly be known by “socialists, bluestockings, and cads” — to lift a quote from critic Benedict Nightingale out of the ACT program — even in the 1920s.
So when Maugham premiered this light but devastating comedy about an upper-middle-class woman who rebels against her conventional marriage because it feels like prostitution, London audiences were scandalized. Never mind that Shaw had written his own classic on the same theme, Mrs. Warren's Profession, a generation earlier. Everyone but socialists, bluestockings, and cads was shocked — shocked! — to hear Maugham's heroine, Constance Middleton, say that a modern wife in a stale marriage is nothing but “a prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods.” At least poorer wives kept house and raised children, she said; well-off households had servants for all that. A trophy wife of the 1920s was not supposed to find a job, so the main transaction of her career was to trade her body for elegant room and board.
The Constant Wife begins like a drawing-room comedy, with Constance's sister, Martha, gossiping with their mother and a liberated friend named Barbara. Martha and Barbara have heard that John Middleton, Constance's husband, has been screwing Constance's best friend. The three ladies gossip, unattended, in Constance and John's art deco living room. Mrs. Culver, Constance's mother, holds worldly but Victorian views about marriage, which value correctness of form. “I am unable to attach any importance to the philanderings of men,” she declares. “Constance and John have been married for 15 years, and John is a veddy agreeable man.” In other words, let him play.
Martha and Barbara detest this double standard. When Constance turns up, they drop hints about her husband's affairs. She ignores them, but when she's faced, at last, with undeniable evidence — in front of company — Constance invents a story to cover for her husband with a social grace her mother would admire. Then she proceeds to eviscerate her marriage by going to work for Barbara (a steely New Woman, with an interior-design business of her own) and taking up with a former suitor named Bernard. She leaves the form of the marriage intact, in other words, but makes no secret of freeing her life — and finances — from bourgeois convention. Her mother is aghast. “I don't approve of your attitude, Constance,” she says. “In my day, when a woman discovered she'd been deceived by her husband, she collapsed in a flood of tears and went home for three weeks to her mother.”
What starts as froth ends with a stiletto jab, and the merits of ACT's new production follow the same arc. Director Kyle Donnelly offers a weak serve but a beautiful follow-through. Act 1 should be sparkling, effervescent — light as champagne — but instead it feels wobbly. Ellen Karas' Constance is stiff and deliberately paced; the acting in general seems to plod. Jonathan Fried's John Middleton (Constance's husband) is a tired parody of a satisfied bourgeois doctor, and his lover Marie-Louise, played by Ashley West, is not just frivolous but annoying. At first only Beth Dixon as Constance's mother and Stacy Ross as Barbara seem to act with real conviction. But the story and the production both hit a stride in the middle, and by Maugham's perfectly constructed third act, everything comes to a point.
Karas at her best is simmering and graceful as Constance, lying to save her husband's name and defending herself, later, with the speech about prostitution. Emily Ackerman, as Martha, is very funny as soon as the character exposes herself as something of a fashionable dope. Ross' Barbara is pure British flapper in a close-fitting black skirt suit and dark cropped hair, and Charles Dean does a hilarious cameo as Marie-Louise's outraged husband, Mortimer. The major surprise, though, is Jonathan Fried, who becomes a volcano of need and jealousy once Dr. Middleton understands how profoundly Constance has betrayed him — and not just him, but the whole structure of convention for which he stands.
The play is 2 1/2 hours long, with two intermissions, and when the story starts to move it feels like no time at all. Thanks to Fried's performance, the show ends, like a well-controlled one-act, on a climax of pathetic emotion, and you can imagine even the ghost of Bernard Shaw clapping in the wings.