The drawing room comedy has fallen out of fashion over the years. These extremely well-made, light, sophisticated plays center around members of polite society whose lives unravel in a literal drawing room during otherwise civilized weekends in the country. Featuring wit and verbal banter among wealthy, leisured, upper-class Brits, the form eventually morphed into what we see on Masterpiece Theatre. But, back in the day, one of the finest examples of the drawing room genre was W. Somerset Maugham’s The Circle, now on the boards at Theatre 40, directed by Jules Aaron.
Written in 1921, Maugham’s very British play is appropriately plot-heavy. Elizabeth (Shelby Kocee) is married to the meticulous antique furniture collector Arnold (Scott Facher). During a long weekend at their country estate in Dorset, the sins of Arnold’s parents play out when abandoning narcissist mother Lady Kitty (Rhonda Lord) comes face to face with Clive (Lloyd Pedersen), the man she was unfaithful to a generation ago. At the same time, Elizabeth must face a similar choice as the international gallant Teddie (Ross Alden) professes his love to Elizabeth with an invitation to abandon Arnold, bringing the sins of the family full circle. Hence, the title.
Maugham’s play is filled with intelligence and wit. He dissects the flaws of human relationships with skill and compassion. Never afraid to tell a difficult truth, The Circle is an argument in favor of infidelity, at least where it means ending up with the right partner in the end. Maugham serves his bon mots with the wit of Oscar Wilde and his wisdom like a succinct George Bernard Shaw: “The tragedy of love isn’t death or loss,” one character states. “The tragedy of love is indifference.”
The Theatre 40 production has an uneven design team. Thankfully, Jeff G. Rack’s drawing room set is a piece of perfection. Filled with elegant furniture and antique set dressing, it almost becomes another character in the play. Michele Young’s costumes fit the times, but often (as in Lady Kitty’s eveningwear) they draw a little too much attention to themselves. Judi Lewin’s hair and wigs are hit and miss, all too ofter distracting us when they should be transporting us to the 1920s. And Bill Froggatt’s sound design offers merely predictable period fare.
To make matters worse, director Jules Aaron never quite appears to understand the drawing room comedy style. It’s as if he doesn’t trust either the material or his audience’s maturity enough to let Maugham’s story simply unfold, instead putting inappropriate touches on a very straightforward and completely engaging play. He has Dionne Jones’ Anna, the incidental friend, mugging through the play’s exposition; he doesn’t quite know how to ground Rhonda Lord’s Lady Kitty in a balance of genuine insecurity and self-involvement. And I was never clear exactly what Fernando Aldaz’ butler George was doing, other than shtick that distracts from Maugham’s intended tale. Finally, Aaron’s inexplicable choice to have one character completely step out of Maugham’s style to enact a Christ-like crucifixion moves the play toward camp when it should erring on the side of sophistication.
The acting is by and large unexceptional – competent at best, amateur at worst. The two actors who deliver the best performances are, thankfully, the romantic leads. Shelby Kocee plays the comely Elizabeth with confidence, poise, and passion. Elizabeth is such a lovely fit for Kocee that you really do hope she will leave fussy Arnold for globe-trotting adventures with the dashing Teddie. But it is Ross Alden’s Teddie who holds the play’s beating heart. He orchestrates Teddie beautifully as the character progresses from decent houseguest to family-destroying philanderer. He fills each moment with truth and believability, leaping onto a table one minute, remembering his reserved British values the next. Alden has such an authentic understanding of the urgency of callow youth that, when he delivers his final plea for Elizabeth to steal away with him, he has the audience in the palm of his hand. It’s a knowing, heartbreaking moment where we see that Teddie completely understands that he is offering Elizabeth an authentic life that will include pain and imperfection, yet it is this honest understanding of human nature that makes Teddie a perfect match for Elizabeth. Kocee and Alden redeem an otherwise uninspired production and honor at least half of The Circle with the world W. Somerset Maugham intended.
photos by Ed Krieger
Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on October 28, 2012
for tickets, call 310-364-0535 or visit Theatre 40