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Theater: Production puts accent on stiff upper lips

By Carrie Humphreys
For the Observer

Many are familiar with W. Somerset Maugham’s serious novels — “The Razor’s Edge,” “The Painted Veil,” “Of Human Bondage” – but as a playwright he also composed some very humorous works, like the British comedy “The Constant Wife” that opens Friday at the Strand Theater.

Although written in 1926, Maugham’s witty take on marriage and infidelity is amazingly modern. Droll, salty and cleverly crafted, audiences are in for an “utter hoot” (as they say in London) as Constance Middleton, the calm, intelligent, and self-possessed wife of a successful London doctor leads us through her devilish manipulation of marital matters.

As the play begins, Constance appears unaware of her husband’s flagrant affair with her best friend, Marie-Louise Dunham. Although Constance’s sister, Martha, wants to tell Constance of the affair, her mother thinks Constance would be better off in ignorance. Constance’s other friends, too, fear that the shock would be too great for her.

Unbeknownst to all, Constance secretly knows all about her husband’s adultery and purposefully maintains the fiction held by her friends, mother, and sister that she has no idea of the affair. However, when confronted by Marie-Louise’s jealous husband, Constance tells her family that she has known all along. She further shocks them by demonstrating a total lack of sentiment on the subject of matrimony. After 15 years of marriage, Constance, now age 35, has more options than her family and friends give her credit for. This is no desperate housewife. You’ll see.

“A man thinks it quite natural that he should fall out of love with a woman, but it never strikes him for a moment that a woman can do anything so unnatural as to fall out of love with him,” Constance says.

Mark Brown, who directs the Swamp Fox Players production, noted that when the play was first written, women were taken care of by their husbands and didn’t have much say so about their life. As they were not the breadwinners, women had to endure.

“This play is really a kind of a battle of the sexes,” Brown explained. “Constance gets a job and so the rules are changed now. She can do what she wants. She can provide for herself.”

He advises the audience to pay close attention to the lines and the subtle humor.

Brown believes that only British actors can truly deliver that dry English humor as this play was intended. “What I’m working with here is not that unique dry British humor. That isn’t easy to do. But this humor is funny in a different way,” he said.

What was Brown’s challenge directing the nine-member cast?

“It is most difficult getting the actors with all their various regional accents to try to get a British accent,” said Brown, who encouraged his cast to listen to an audio recording of the play to get the idea of the accent.

The thespians are giving it their best effort.

Jan Fort, who plays Constance’s upright and conservative mother Mrs. Culver, was unfamiliar with British humor or the accent. “Everyone is telling me to watch ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” Fort said. To prepare for her role she speaks with an English accent everywhere she goes, even during interviews.

Stacy Rabon, who plays Constance’s business associate, used a British accent “manual” to phonetically mark her lines.

Pamela Streicher, the mistress, said accents are easy for her. “I like being British.”

Jeff Siegrist, who plays John Middleton, “the bad guy,” believes that women have an easier time with accents than men. “It is difficult to keep the same tone of voice and not raise the pitch of your voice, particularly for a baritone like me,” he said.

Siegrist practices his lines two or three times daily. “You can go on a website or read about doing accents, but ultimately it comes down to the actual script and this adds another layer of difficulty to a play that is hard enough already. You have the lines to memorize, the blocking, the cues and then you have to become that character. The language element doubles the challenge,” he said.

Also among the pseudo-Brits are Joe Ford, who plays Bernard Kersal, Constance’s love interest from years ago; Lee Padget, who plays Mortimer Durham, the husband of Mr. Middleton’s mistress; Warren Umstead as Bentley the butler; and Marcy Carl who plays Constance’s sister Martha.

Ariane U. Lieberman, who plays Constance, took to her character’s Britishness “from the get-go,” Brown said.

Lieberman, a cardiologist, often appears on the Strand stage. She has been acting since age 8. “It’s my first love. My patients know that if Hollywood ever came calling, I’d be out of here,” she said.

Lieberman said she had little trouble adapting to her role, originally played by Ethel Barrymore, as the likeable upper class wife who sets about turning bad luck, unfaithful friends, local gossip and a broken heart to her own advantage.

“The only real difficulty is the amount of dialogue and the fact that the English don’t put their words together the same way as Americans,” said Lieberman. “Their words are jumbled around and not in the same order as ours, so it’s not only the lines I had to learn, but how they say things. It’s not the way we talk.”

She described the plot of “The Constant Wife” as “what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.”

“It’s hard to believe the play was written so long ago because, although it is definitely funny, there is a lot of reality to it which people will relate to today: what sometimes happens after being married a long time, “Lieberman said.

If you go

What: “The Constant Wife” by W. Somerset Maugham

When: Feb. 28, March 1, 7- 8, 13-15 at 8 p.m. and March 9 and 16 at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Strand Theater, Georgetown

How much: $15. Call 527-2924 for tickets

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