By David A. Rosenberg
No, no one actually says those words in “The Circle,” although two characters bounce in with racquets in hand. And, lest the phrase seems to sum up a typical boulevard comedy from a certain era (the play first appeared in 1921), be forewarned. Author W. Somerset Maugham had considerably more on his mind than mindlessness.
In the diverting but less than brittle rendering of the revival at Westport Country Playhouse, ideas about infidelity, politics and social mobility are surprisingly modern.
Take Lady Catherine (Kitty) Champion-Cheney, invited to luncheon by son Arnold. Thirty years ago, she deserted her husband and her then five-year-old son to run away with her paramour, Lord Porteous. Her daring act quite ruined Porteous’ chances of becoming Prime Minister and caused her wronged husband, Clive, to divorce her. However, since Porteous’ wife declined to do likewise, the amorous couple was forced to live in sin.
Complicating the luncheon is Clive’s unexpected arrival from Paris where the admitted skirt-chaser presumably had a ball. Even worse, Elizabeth, the pretty 20-something who’s married to stuffed-shirt Arnold, is in love with Teddie Luton, described, rather archly, as “an attractive youth in flannels.” Also present, although for what purpose is hard to fathom, is Mrs. Shenstone, a friend.
Thus the situation is set for an unmannerly comedy of manners. Will Elizabeth repeat her mother-in-law’s indiscretion and run off with Teddie? (Hence the title.) Will Porteous be brought up short by his rival, Clive? Who will win at bridge?
“One’s got to keep a man’s love,” says Kitty. “It’s the only thing one has.” To which Elizabeth replies, “I’m a human being. I can stand on my own feet.” Remember this is 1921 when women could work as shopgirls, typists or nurses and little else, especially after having been involved in a scandal.
The life that Porteous and Kitty led has taken its toll. After all, as Porteous says, “If we made rather a hash of things, perhaps it was because we are rather trivial people.” Yet this is not a trivial comedy. Instead, it has shades of both Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, neither lightweights.
While that assessment is true, it’s a mistake to play underpinnings of sentimentality and seriousness at the expense of surface patter and humor. Director Nicholas Martin takes the former approach, resulting in an evening that trots when it should gallop.
Marsha Mason is a cursory Kitty, with John Horton a sour Porteous. Paxton Whitehead, who plays roles such as this so often that he could probably do them in his sleep, is rogueish as Clive. Gretchen Hall is a lively Elizabeth as are Marc Vietor’s Arnold and Bruce Pinkham’s Teddie. The always stylish Christine Rouner is wasted as Mrs. Shenstone.
“The tragedy of love isn’t death or separation,” says Kitty. “The tragedy of love is indifference.”
Decades after it was written, “The Circle” still has a talent to be both incisive and amusing.
This review by Dave Rosenberg appeared in The Hour