Review: ACT’s “The Circle”

(opened Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007)

3 1/2 stars Ripping romance

The Circle is rather a silly title for a fairly wonderful play. Surely author W. Somerset Maugham meant to indicate the circular patterns in life and how, in spite of our best efforts, we tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.

A more appropriate — though far less poetic — title might have been Spiky Parallel Lines. That better indicates the juxtaposition of past and present adulteries at the heart of the play.
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Whatever its title, The Circle glides along on Maugham’s delightful words — part Oscar Wilde, part “As the World Turns” — and gives us a glimpse into the thorny essence of love, be it temporary or eternal.

A few seasons ago, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater dusted of Maugham’s The Constant Wife to great effect, and now the company gives us “The Circle,” considered by many to be the writer’s best play.

This is the kind of period piece ACT does better than just about any other local company. The blend of sophistication and comedy yields great satisfaction in the gilded palace formerly known as the Geary Theater.

As usual, the set is initially impressive and eventually overstated. Designer John Arnone takes an Act 3 reference to being in prison literally and turns an English country home circa 1920 into a conservatory that wouldn’t look out of place on Alcatraz.

What matters about the set is that it feels fussy and uncomfortable. That’s the home created by Arnold Champion-Cheney (James Waterston, son of Sam), a stiff-as-a-board English politician for his lovely wife Elizabeth (Allison Jean White).

Arnold has every reason to hope his marriage will work out better than his parents’ marriage. Thirty years prior, Arnold’s mother, Lady Kitty (Kathleen Widdoes), left her husband, Clive (Philip Kerr), for another man _ Lord Hugh Porteous (Ken Ruta).

The ensuing scandal was something of a late 19th-century Brangelina fracas, even inspiring a pop song, “Naughty Lady Kitty.”

Wouldn’t you just know it: all these years later, Arnold is finally going to see his mother and her paramour (they never married), and his father shows up out of the blue.

And wouldn’t you just know it again, Arnold’s wife chooses this inopportune moment to fall in love with a doltish farmer visiting from the tropics (Craig Marker as Teddy Luton) who uses the adjective “ripping” every chance he gets.

Lady Kitty, now a rather ridiculous figure deathly afraid of aging, and her boy toy, now a cranky fussbudget with ill-fitting false teeth, gave up everything for love.
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Now Elizabeth wants to repeat the romantic mistake. But was it really a mistake?

For three acts and nearly three hours, director Mark Lamos guides his sturdy cast through Maugham’s attempt to be a romantic and a cynic at the same time.

Clive describes his ex-wife as a woman whose “soul is as thickly rouged as her face…tinsel…a silly, worthless woman.”

We’re inclined to agree (though in Widdoes’ expert performance, we also adore her), but there’s no disguising the play’s exposed heart when, after a particularly harsh squabble, Lady Kitty and Lord Hughie rekindle the love that has sustained them — off and on — for three decades.
Ruta, Widdoes and Kerr walk away with the play if only because their combination of maturity, wisdom and utter stupidity is completely captivating.

That’s not to say the younger people aren’t good — they are. Waterston is especially effective at humanizing Arnold’s pretension, and Marker’s hyper-passionate Teddy startles with his vehemence.

White as Elizabeth is more problematic. She gets all the surface details right _ the casual charm, the pensive looks _but can’t quite bring the character into focus when all the drawing room stuffiness is superseded by throbbing ardor and the need to break free of her conventional life.

“Don’t you think people make a lot of unnecessary fuss about love?” Clive asks. Of course they do. Without such fuss, we wouldn’t have insidiously romantic, warmly cold-hearted plays like The Circle.

For information about The Circle visit the ACT Web site.

One thought on “Review: ACT’s “The Circle”

  1. Another ripping good review. If we can’t read your reviews in the paper, at least we have you here on the Web.

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