A Cuckolded Wife Touts a Peculiar Brand of Feminism

    When all is said and done, the modern wife is nothing but a parasite.”

    Courtesy Of The Old Globe
    Frankly, I Don’t Give a Damn: In “Constant Wife,” Henny Russell plays a socialite who turns a blind eye to her husband’s cheating ways, wittily defending herself against her friends’ outcries.

    Sexist? Perhaps — if these words had been uttered by a typically complacent and condescending well-to-do member of the male species. But instead, in a surprising twist (one of many in “The Constant Wife”), an affluent — and married — woman in the roaring days of the ’20s arrives at this conclusion.

    In W. Somerset Maugham’s witty comedy, Constance Middleton (Henny Russell) is a socialite who has been married for 15 years to wealthy surgeon John Middleton. She’s also happily oblivious (or so her friends believe) to the fact that her husband is having a notorious affair with her best friend, Marie-Louise Durham (Lara Phillips), herself a married woman.

    But this is no ordinary melodramatic, “Dawson’s Creek”-esque love triangle. When the scandalous affair is brought to light by Durham’s husband, Constance (without missing a beat) denies it and covers up for her husband and his mistress, rendering her friends and husband speechless.

    Russell plays this critical scene brilliantly, infusing Constance’s manners with such charm, poise and cool sincerity that for a suspended moment even the other characters look as if they might start to believe her assertive logic themselves. Russell makes Constance’s quick thinking seem both effortless and spontaneous at the same time, piquing the audience’s amused interest at what other clever inspirations she might concoct next.

    Maugham aims his sharp wit at gender equality, the double-standards of marital roles and the interpretation of marriage. Constance becomes Maugham’s subtle, and therefore believable, spokeswoman for feminism, and some of the play’s most insightful lines are derived from the humorous observations of Constance herself.

    Despite her loved ones’ stunned objection that she should be furious with her cheating husband, Constance is surprisingly affable and calm. A working woman and housewife, Constance points out, helps shoulder the burden for her husband, but a wealthy woman has everything taken care of for her. She comes to the conclusion that a modern wife is a leech and “a prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.” Instead of becoming angry at her husband for his philandering ways, Constance shrewdly seeks to redefine her marriage on her own empowering and liberating terms.

    “Constant Wife” also benefits from the strength of its supporting cast and the beauty of its set design. Ralph Funicello creates a glowing effect with his white-on-white walls and furniture, yet pulls it all together with a breathtaking chandelier to create a warm radiance.

    John Middleton (Wynn Harmon) becomes less of a charming cad and, especially in the later scenes, exposes vulnerability and pouting boyishness that gives his character an almost sympathetic humanity. But it is Kandis Chappell, playing Constance’s mother Mrs. Culver, who nearly steals the show with her deadpan and brutally honest remarks, such as the advice she gives her daughter: “Men were meant by nature to be wicked and delightful and deceive their wives. And women were meant to be virtuous and forgiving and to suffer verbosely.”

    “Constant Wife” has been regarded as a comedy of manners, but underneath its innocent exterior is a humorous critique on equality and class.

    “The Constant Wife” is showing through May 7 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park with tickets ranging from $19 to $59. For ticket information, call (619) 23-GLOBE or visit www.theoldglobe.org.

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