PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Constant Wife: Sunrise, Somerset

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Constant Wife: Sunrise, Somerset For most of the first-nighters at Roundabout's 42nd Street flagship home (the American Airlines Theatre, if you will) on June 16, The Constant Wife qualified as the dawning of a new play.
Kate Burton; Lynn Redgrave; Michele Pawk & John Dossett; Kathryn Meisle; John Ellison Conlee; Boyd Gaines; Carolyn McCormick & Byron Jennings; F. Murray Abraham; Michael Mayer; Helen Stenborg; Scott Ellis; Angelica Torn; Kathleen Marshall
Kate Burton; Lynn Redgrave; Michele Pawk & John Dossett; Kathryn Meisle; John Ellison Conlee; Boyd Gaines; Carolyn McCormick & Byron Jennings; F. Murray Abraham; Michael Mayer; Helen Stenborg; Scott Ellis; Angelica Torn; Kathleen Marshall Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Enter laughing Kate Burton, radiant and redheaded as ever, maybe a shade less grand than the extravagantly theatrical double-door entry she made in Hedda Gabler but no less determined to conjure up the smart, high-styled comedy in which it was originally played.

And darned if she doesn't pull it off, with more than a little help from her director (Mark Brokaw) and a diamond-sharp cast of accomplices (including Michael Cumpsty as her errant husband, John Dossett as her persisting swain and Lynn Redgrave as her alternatively wise and wisecracking mum)—all a-twirl in elegant costumes and settings.

Oh, yes, and the author was helpful, too. Of all people, The Constant Wife is the work of W. Somerset Maugham, the heavy-duty novelist (Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge) who turns out to be the author of 29 plays—some, like this, much sunnier than his Rain.

In fact, the play was probably received as audacious for its time because it is still capable of adding extra arch to the eyebrows now, it being a cleverly crafted little exercise on how to housetrain a spouse who has been straying. The secret, according to Mr. Maugham's Book of Marital Manners, comes down to the immortal words of Jack Jones: Wives should always be lovers, too. How this plays out makes a sprightly, surprising night of theatre.

A couple of blocks north of the theatre, Burton was all smiles and sunshine when she arrived the opening-night party, held in the Roundabout's regular rendezvous room in the Millennium Broadway Hotel. "It felt great," she trilled. "We've had three great nights for the critics, and tonight went well, too. Every show since we started has been pretty sparkly, but particularly these last few days the audiences have been really with us." There was not an appreciable loss of glamour after she ditched the vintage dubs for contemporary attire, but it's clear she's made to order for those gossamer, peach-and-pink creations that Michael Krass whipped up for her. "I feel comfortable in any kind of times past. I'm a period actress, as you know. It's nice not to have to wear a corset. Aren't the costumes beautiful? It's the same designer from Hedda Gabler—fantastic designer—so he knew me really well. I felt very well taken care of with this show."

And she's counting her main man on hair, the Tony-winning wig specialist Paul Huntley, who shared the wealth with the other ladies in the cast. For Kathryn Meisle, who plays her best friend (and The Other Woman), he gave her Glynis Johns look. "This is the first time in my life or career that anyone has said Glynis Johns, and you're the third one," squealed Meisle. "I think that is so cool. I want a series of pictures of me in Paul Huntley wigs because they have all been so different. He helps create the character."

Diva of the dowager division, Redgrave is having, and getting, a good time, sitting on the sidelines dispensing some rather bizarre motherly advice to Burton and Enid Graham.

"It's a fabulous role—it really is," she admitted. "Sometimes she's quiet for a while, and what's so wonderful is when she opens her mouth, she says something so unexpected."

Example? There's a moment in the third act when Burton, heart divided, turns to her mother and asks, "How does one know if one's in love?" Redgrave pauses pensively and then replies: "My dear, I only know one test: Could you use his toothbrush?"

There seems a little Edith Evans seeping into Redgrave's performance—she did a dandy take-off on the dame in her Tony-nominated solo show, Shakespeare for My Father—but the actress says not. "I wasn't really thinking of Edith. I thought about my mother [the late actress Rachel Kempson] a time or two, particularly when Kathleen McNenny suggests Kate needs a job. I say, `Why? What for? Her husband has plenty of money.' It's the sort of thing my mother would say, even though my mother was the worker."

But keep the Dame Edith thought anyway. She'll soon be taking a role the dame made famous on stage and screen (Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest).

"That will be my next stage role," said Redgrave. "Peter Hall is directing. We're opening in the middle of January at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, and then we'll go on a short tour to Columbus, Chicago, New Haven, Boston and then, for a week, BAM."

Her sister, Vanessa Redgrave, is currently headlining BAM, opening June 17 for a ten-performance run in Hecuba. True to the family tradition, the shows are going on, but their hearts are heavy and their passports are in hand, ready to speed to the bedside of their brother, Corin Redgrave, 65, who was felled by a heart attack on June 8.

"Every day, thank the Lord, my brother is doing better and better. Only five days ago we were told there was no hope and that he would never come out of it and that he couldn't breathe on his own. The next morning he woke up, and he was smiling. He's still on life-support and being fed, but he's talking and beginning to ask about what happened. I have a picture of him in my dressing room, and I light the candles right by him."

Cumpsty pointed out the playwright's grandson, who was among the opening night crowd. Some eyebrows were raised. After his divorce in 1927, Maugham moved to the South of France where he lived with his male lover until his death at age 92 in 1965.

Much of the pleasure of this production comes from the exquisite payback Cumpsty receives from the wife he was cheating on. Civility is stretched and strained when he laments the plight of an adulterer whose sense of sin and romance is lost when his wife finds out. ("I tried to keep it from you as long as I could," Burton declares).

Cumpsty stumbled across the play three years ago in London. "Ed Hall's production, and it was wonderful, and a revelation because I didn't even know the play existed." Happily, it did, and Cumpsty gets to use a different portion of his palette. "I haven't had an opportunity to do something like this since I was in graduate school," he admitted. "Kathryn Meisle and I used to do a lot of plays together. We did a really funny production of The Importance of Being Earnest—and other things that were laugh riots—but I haven't had a good rip-roaring comedy part since I've been in New York. I love the fact I can mine a certain amount of farce, energy and physical comedy in this. He's a character who could successfully be played straight, but Mark let me to be pretty schticky. I love that."

Simon Jones, a Roundabout reliable who's doing J.M. Barrie's Dear Brutus July 7-24 at the Westport Country Playhouse with Beth Fowler and Christopher Evan Welch, had praise for Brokaw's direction: "I've seen other productions where people move from one chair to another simply because the director got bored with them sitting in one chair and thought they should move to another. The movement tonight was very natural. Actually, if you analyzed it, it's odd that people would get up from one chair and moved to another just to say a line, but in fact—and this was the cleverness of Brokaw's direction—it looked as if it were perfectly natural. It kept the picture moving, which is always the thing."

Also, Jones felt, the heightened unreality in which the comedy was played was always there on the printed page. "Implied was a certain part of society that was watching how the other half lived. And it was put so clearly that Somerset Maugham was saying to the theatre-going audience, 'You don't really live like this. You wish you did, don't you? You wish you had impeccable taste and servants and 'stuff,' don't you?'"

The Full Monty's John Ellison Conlee landed the role of Meisle's cheated-on spouse because he could achieve a Billy Gilbert-sized sneeze, but what came across on opening night was a cuckold without a kachoo to his name. "The sneezes had to be cut," he admitted sheepishly. "They were so fantastic they distracted from the theme of the play."

Boyd Gaines, who last occupied the American Airlines Theatre with Roundabout's longest run ever (as thoughtful Juror #8 among Twelve Angry Men), pretended to think a moment before deciding that McNenny was his favorite performer of the evening. She's Mrs. Gaines and, even if he did say so himself, looked swell in vintage gear. "Michael Krass did Twelve Angry Men. We didn't get anything like that. I don't understand it."

Byron Jennings, another recently released Angry Man, showed up at the opening with a burr cut that made him look ready for the road company of Bent. "Actually, I had a couple of days on a Civil War movie," he said. "They just took it off. We shot it in Maryland. It's about Gettysburg." Although he's in talks to do A Touch of the Poet with Gabriel Byrne and the newly Tonyed director, Doug Hughes, he's not rushing back to work in the hopes that he and actress-wife, Carolyn McCormick (who just finished a run of Privilege), can have an unfettered summer with their two boys, ages 4 and 7.

The two other acting couples in the room were currently employed. The first: Graham, who plays Burton's cauldron-stirring sister, and Robert Sella, who works right next door at the Hilton Theatre as a comic villain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Their new-born Valentino was at home with the babysitter, missing another of his parents' openings.

The other couple: Dossett, who plays Burton's torch-toting sweetheart, and Michelle Pawk, who plays Ron Rifkin's wife and mother (doing a magnificent job of both roles) in The Paris Letter. She, Rifkin and Jason Butler Harner showed up after their play.

Other opening night celebrities included Amy Irving, producer Chase Miskin, Amadeus and Saleri (Tom Hulce and Oscar winning F. Murray Abraham), director Michael Mayer (editing his Flicka flick, hoping to do Spring Awakening in the winter), Helen Stenborg, directors Walter Bobbie and Scott Ellis, Angelica Torn, Burton's husband and mother (Michael Ritchie, now of L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, and Sybil Christopher, of Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre), director choreographer Kathleen Marshall (currently auditioning for Two Gentlemen of Verona, bowing in the park in August), Jayne Atkinson and actor-husband Michel Gill, Becky Ann Baker, The Producers's Tony winner Cady Huffman and the recent Tony-nominated Mrs. Malaprop, Dana Ivey.

Bob Ari, another Roundabout soldier, drew double standby duty—for Conlee's cuckold and Denis Holmes' butler—and hopes he gets more work than he did his last Roundabout standby: for Nathan Lane in The Man Who Came to Dinner. "It's the one show Nathan never missed a performance for," said Ari. "I think it was the wheelchair. He rested up."

Ari also feels The Constant Wife, at 79, is finally—better late than never—coming of age. "There was a co-production of it by the Walnut Street Playhouse in Philadelphia and the Cocoanut Grove Playhouse in Miami," he said, "and it'll be the last production staged in the old Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis this summer. I'm telling ya, it's Zeitgeist!"

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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