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The Circle

A Ripping Social Satire of Love and Marriage

W. Somerset Maugham’s plays concentrated on social commentary and the conventions of marriage, and in his clever satire, “The Circle”, Maugham presents his audience with a circuitous dilemma -- is marriage for practical purposes, or is marriage for love and passion? The drama here is in two generations of upper-crust marriages where characters are confronted with similar impulses, with wives who seek to abandon stability for a shot at romance.

The curtain opens on the young, upper-crust couple, Arnold and Elizabeth, and their “businessman” friend, Teddie. Arnold, more concerned with politics and polishing his antique furniture than in paying attention to his young, beautiful wife, states, “You can’t expect a man to go on making love to his wife after three years…after all, a man marries to have a home, but also because he doesn’t want to be bothered with sex and all that sort of thing.” It’s no wonder Elizabeth and Teddie fall madly in love, with Teddie stating, “A marriage without love is no marriage at all.” With this, Elizabeth promises Teddie she’ll leave her husband so she can join him in some potentially isolating British colony.

With the arrival of Arnold’s mother, Lady Kitty, the meaning of marriage and love are further complicated with the question of what love, and a choice of love over marriage, comes to mean in time. Thirty years earlier Arnold’s mother Lady Kitty left Arnold’s father Clive for her lover Lord Porteous. Of course, due to these events, Lady Kitty and Lord Porteous have been living in exile in Florence, Italy. But ever-romantic Elizabeth, understandably seeing herself in Lady Kitty, invites her mother-in-law for a visit. Happenstance, Arnold’s father decides to visit his son and daughter-in-law at the same time only to discover Kitty’s imminent arrival and Elizabeth on the brink of repeating history with young Teddie.

Here the tension of “The Circle” becomes two-fold -- will Elizabeth leave her husband for her lover, and should she? Of course, there is little to redeem poor Arnold, since he does care more about his furniture than he could ever care about his wife. Nevertheless, one does wonder about such things as Elizabeth’s chances for survival with Teddie, and Maugham pushes his audience toward questions about what a life, and a marriage, really should entail.

“The Circle”, understandably Maugham’s most well-loved and successful plays, is full of wit and humor, and Tony Award nominated director Mark Lamos, making the most of tone and timing, fully understands the complexity of his material. He’s quoted as saying, “In "The Circle", you don’t know whose side to be on. These characters are all fools, and they’re all wise, and it’s teasing that quality out of each of ourselves that maybe is the lesson that’s embedded in the play.” And this is true, since one’s first instincts, and initial sympathies, are forever changing throughout the performance, with the results being that none of these characters are what one would expect, each containing a confusing array of frivolity, stupidity, and utterly confounding duality.

A.C.T.’s production of “The Circle” is truly well-worth seeing, with wonderful performances drawn from all actors -- including James Waterson, as Arnold, perfect as the archetypal prig; Craig W. Marker as Teddie, the young lover who relies heavily on his brawn and limited vocabulary, that includes few words beyond the all-encompassing “ripping”; and the lovely Allison Jean White as the spirited Elizabeth. But the success of “The Circle” really relies on the older generation of characters, and this production shines when these actors take center stage. Broadway veteran Kathleen Widdeoes’ nuanced portrayal of Lady Kitty and Ken Ruta’s impressive, and hilarious, physical comedy as Lord Porteous, are both stand-out performances.

With these actors on stage, and balanced by the clever knowingness of Phillip Kerr’s portrayal of Kitty’s cuckolded husband Clive, the curtain closes with the sense that time and experience may provide merely more opportunities for mishaps for these characters, and Maugham not so cynically suggests that one can’t expect marriage -- or love -- to guarantee happiness.

The Circle
runs through February 4th
at American Conservatory Theater
box office: 415.749.2228
tickets $18 – 82