'The Constant Wife' at the Skirball Cultural Center

Kate Burton
Kate Burton Retna

The marital scandals that dominate gossip columns today provoked widespread interest eight decades ago. That’s when playwright Somerset Maugham wrote “The Constant Wife” – an examination of fidelity and truthfulness that his fellow Britons were ill-prepared to read or hear.

This week at the Skirball Cultural Center, LA Theatre Works presents the play. KPCC’s Steve Julian spoke with three of the actors, including Kate Burton, who portrays the constant, seemingly unchanging, wife.

“And you think about when these plays were written and what revelations, what revelatory moments they must have been, nobody had ever met a character like Constance Middleton," said Burton.

The play flopped in Britain, but it was a huge hit in the United States with Ethel Barrymore as Constance.

“But she even resonates today, which is the mark of a great play.”

Burton earned a Tony nomination for playing this role on Broadway four years ago. That a man wrote this play surprises Stephen Collins, who plays Bernard, a man who loved Constance long before she married someone else. That character returns after a 15-year absence.

“I don’t know much about Maugham, but boy, did he understand the way women understand men," said Collins.

Collins calls that understanding deep and intense, funny and real.

“The mind of him, his understanding is – God, he was way ahead of his time.”

Constance Middleton is an upper middle class English woman whose marriage seems very happy. The script gives only a passing nod that she has a teenage daughter with her husband, played by John de Lancie.

“And everybody knows that her husband is having an affair with her best friend, but she, quote-unquote, doesn’t know," said Burton.

Some married people had affairs then, just as they do today. But everyone handles the truth of it in different ways.

Maugham wrote poetic dialogue for the couple at the center of this play. And the talk turned from “The Constant Wife” to the example of other great writers, including William Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare for me, I’m going to be truthful, has always been wonderful, obviously, extraordinary, amazing, part of my life," said Burton. "Good playwright. My dad was so famous, my father, Richard Burton, so famous, famous, famous for so many, so many things, but particularly for doing his Shakespeare. And so as a kid actor of the big famous actor, I was always like ‘Oh, yeah, Shakespeare’s great, whatever.’ But the big love of my life is Anton Chekhov.”

“I just read Lear again because I wanted to read it and I came across something and, oh my god, there’s that scene and there’s that, and then I go, ‘oh... I go, ‘he’s just a big whiny baby!'" said de Lancie, laughing. "And I go, I can’t be thinking that, this is Lear! And, so, there are some wonderful Shakespeare plays, but there are some that are not so great.”

They agree that “The Constant Wife” ranks among the best the 20th century had to offer. Because of this, and works that include his earlier “Of Human Bondage,” Maugham became the best paid writer of his day. He lived the better part of his life on the French Riviera.

L.A. Theatre Works records “The Constant Wife” before a live audience tonight through Sunday at the Skirball Center. You can find details about the production – to be broadcast later on this station – at LATW.org.

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