Corrections or additions?

This review by Joan Crespi was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 11, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Circle’

The Circle," one of the jewels of English drama,

by W. Somerset Maugham, is playing in a fine production at Hopewell’s

Off-Broadstreet Theater until February 28. Maugham — for the

under-50

set — is one of the greatest novelists of the century. Best known

for his novel "Of Human Bondage," he was also an outstanding

and much produced playwright.

Written in 1920 and first produced in 1921, "The Circle" is

an elegant comedy of manners. Maugham lampoons individual characters

and high society. Of the cast of seven characters, three have

hyphenated

last names. This is the formal-dress-for dinner class, and the setting

is Arnold Champion-Cheney’s house in Dorset, England. Both clues to

high comedy.

And comedy this is. Maugham’s wit is funny, incisive, and reveals

character. It brought out-loud laughter from the audience on the night

I saw the play. This is a well-made play, with the action confined

to a single set and a 24-hour period (Aristotle’s unities). And the

play is about love. With Maugham’s barbed wit, his clean, economical,

skilled plotting, and a perennial subject, the play is certain to

entertain.

Bob Thick — Off-Broadstreet’s co-producer (with his wife Julie),

director, and designer — has dressed a set with the period pieces

suitable for a decorating taste: wrought gilt picture frames, a

fireplace

screen, open flower wall sconces, even an old gramophone.

All of the roles are acted by off-Broadstreet veterans, and all range

from good to excellent. Thick moves his actors through the range of

emotions, from shouting to gentleness, and nearly all have impeccable

comic timing and do justice to Maugham’s English language. Arnold

Champion-Cheney, a starchy, precise prig of 35, devoted to antique

chairs and his seat in Parliament, is convincingly played by Jim

Morgan.

Doug Kline does an equally good job as the cynical, good-humored,

gently malicious, aging satyr, Clive Champion-Cheney, who arrives

unexpectedly from Paris. Laura Jackson ably plays the bit part of

Mrs. Shenstone, although her costume seems to come from another

century.

Wendy Yazujian is the beauteous, young, shapely

Elizabeth;

she acts with grace, restraint, and dignity, while showing a full

component of emotions. Wife to the passionless Arnold ("You can’t

expect a man to go on making love to his wife after three years"),

Elizabeth has romantic imaginings about Arnold’s mother, Lady Kitty,

who deserted her son and husband 30 years ago to run off with Lord

Porteous. Elizabeth has invited Lady Kitty and Porteous, recently

returned from Italy, down to her home so that mother and son can

become

reacquainted, she says. To make up the party she’s invited Mrs.

Shenstone

and the self-proclaimed practical, unromantic businessman, Edward

"Teddie" Luton, played by Jeff Maschi.

Briefly back from the Federated Malay States, Teddie soon declares

his love for Elizabeth. It’s hard to see why — except for her

marriage to prissy Arnold and a life that bores her — Elizabeth

falls so "desperately in love" with this Teddie. By the third

act, though, Maschi has warmed to the part.

But the play doesn’t take fire until the gruff, blunt, curmudgeon

Lord Porteous, ably played by Brendan Mulvey, walks on stage beside

the marvelous June Connerton, playing the once-beautiful and gay Lady

Catherine C-C become an old, chattering, painted, frivolous woman:

"her soul is as thickly painted as her face." (They’d exiled

themselves to Italy since Porteous’ wife wouldn’t divorce him.) Though

this Lady Kitty is not as rouged, as ravaged by age and a trivial

life, as she should be for marked contrast with Elizabeth (who says,

despite her make-up, that she never uses lipstick), Connerton, waving

her tulle-cuffed hands, delivers great lines with faultless timing.

Her range of emotion is delightful. Her squabbles with Porteous are

telling. Her attempting to charm Clive again is an amusing plot twist.

And her trenchant advice — from bitter experience — to

Elizabeth

on marriage, on love and consequences, is as revealing today as 77

years ago.

So are Lord Porteous’ serious summary remarks: "No one can learn

by the experience of another because no circumstances are quite the

same."

With one or two exceptions, the play is as timely today as it was

in 1920. Back then Britain still had its empire. It’s hilarious to

hear these British arguing over whether Porteous, now become Prime

Minister, would have given his then-secretary, Clive, with his

then-wife,

Kitty, Western Australia, Barbados, or India.

In the second dated passage, Lady Kitty delivers a dire feminist

prediction

as a warning to young Elizabeth: "Woman will only be the equal

of man when she earns her living." Women today, if not yet equal,

are indeed working. Yet audience attitudes change. The first audiences

were shocked by the ending and booed Elizabeth’s choice of action.

In one way the play is unexpectedly timely. With the nation focused

on a sex scandal and its potentially ruinous effect on a politician’s

career, here’s another mix of sex scandal and politics. In this the

play comes full circle. Finally, note that Off-Broadstreet serves

up both a play and dessert. A perennial rave for the desserts.

— Joan Crespi

The Circle, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South

Greenwood

Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. $18.50 & $20. To Saturday, February

28.


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