Tea and Tepid Passions

By Geary Danihy

What price love?

That’s the question asked by W. Somerset Maugham in “The Circle,” a 1920s drawing room comedy that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse in a stylish if somewhat staid production directed by Nicholas Martin.

You see, some 30 years ago, Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney (Marsha Mason) shocked London society by running away with Lord Porteous (John Horton), leaving her husband, Clive (Paxton Whitehead) to raise their five-year-old son, Arnold (Marc Vietor). She did it all for love, and society be damned.

Arnold, now grown into a somewhat anal-retentive Member of Parliament, is married to Elizabeth (Gretchen Hall) and living in Aston-Adey, the family estate, represented by a decorous drawing room nicely apportioned and appointed by scenic designer Alexander Dodge.

The fastidious MP wants things to stay just as they are, but of course that’s not in the offing, because Clive has chosen this moment to drop in from Paris, unaware that his daughter-in-law, much taken with Lady Catherine’s story, has invited Lady Catherine and Lord Porteous, who are visiting London from Italy, up for the weekend for a surprise family reunion.

It takes time – and a lot of dialogue -- to establish identities and plot lines, and there’s not much Martin can do here but move his actors from stage right to stage left, or settee to sofa to chair, as the audience is brought up to speed. The pace picks up a bit with Clive’s arrival, but it is not until Lord Porteous and Lady Catherine appear well into the first act that the play finally pulls out of the station.

Much of what follows deals with the price Lady Catherine has paid over the years for following her heart, and whether or not Elizabeth is willing to pay the same price, for she is desperately in love with Edward Luton (Bryce Pinkham), who, along with Mrs. Shenstone (Christina Rouner), just happens to be a house guest.

The two triangles intertwine as the impact of the past on the present is plumbed in dialogue that is often witty yet somewhat belabored, made so by the studied delivery of humorous lines. Surprisingly, it is Whitehead, who has shown himself in past Playhouse productions to be a master of timing, who is most at fault here, for he uses slight pauses to telegraph to the audience that he is about to say something funny or droll.

Mason and Horton, as the two aging lovers, are much more natural in their delivery and are often a delight to watch, and Hall, a bit too mannered at the start of the play, eases nicely into her role and provides much needed bubble and boil to what otherwise is controlled simmer.
As for the two young gentlemen, perhaps Maugham wished to make a point that the best of their generation was lost in the trenches of World War I, for as Arnold and Edward are written there’s not much, other than the size of their bank accounts, to choose between.  Their lack of charm and substance is accentuated by the fact that Vietor and Pinkham both take the stiff-upper-lip stereotype a bit too far. Vietor does allow his character to become a bit animated when he confronts his wife over her proposed infidelity, but Pinkham delivers almost all of his lines, including declarations of undying love and devotion, while standing at attention. It strains belief that Elizabeth would choose either one as a life partner.

There’s a certain oxymoronic quality to this production, ruled as it is by tepid passions. The experience is pleasant enough, but don’t expect anyone to scream “Stella!” or tear his T-shirt over matters of the heart. That just wouldn’t be proper.

“The Circle” runs through Saturday, June 25. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.WestportPlayhouse.org     

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