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Irish Classical's 'Constant Wife' constantly amuses

Constance Middleton is one cool customer.

She takes a liberal view of infidelity. She blithely compares the notion of sex with her husband to eating cold mutton. And while she certainly thinks men are sweet, she also believes that it would be "absurd to take them seriously."

In the dim light of the Andrews Theatre, where David Oliver's marvelous production of "The Constant Wife" is running through Feb. 11, it's possible to detect many female heads nodding in agreement.

As Kate LoConti deliver's W. Somerset Maugham's breezy and blunt observations about the hopelessness of the marriage contract in the face of human nature, it feels as fresh as a Dan Savage column.

Here, straight from Maugham's pointed pen and the mouth of the remarkable LoConti as Constance, is yet more evidence of how little American society has progressed since Ethel Barrymore played the role of Constance in 1926.

The play, perhaps Maugham's cleverest, delights in skewering staid notions about love and marriage. The labyrinthine course of its plot is less important to detail than its goal: to highlight the hypocrisy of any marriage contract that treats a woman as a piece of property dutifully kept past the expiration date of desire. Or, as Constance memorably puts it, "a prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods."

LoConti, who has turned in fine performances in the recent Irish Classical Theatre Company productions "Design for Living" and "The Winslow Boy," nearly outshines the material. She is effervescent from her first appearance, exuding supreme calm and nonchalance even as she delivers shocking opinions to her family, friends and husband (Eric Michael Rawski).

It's difficult to say precisely what makes LoConti's stage presence so compelling, but it has something to do with her ability to appear both unruffled and utterly engaged with the life of her own mind. Both Barrymore and Buffalo's Katharine Cornell had great success (if mixed reviews) with their appearances as Constance, and it seems clear that LoConti can hold her own in their company.

She has excellent cast-mates as well. As her husband John, Rawski easily morphs from a charming two-timer in one scene to a bundle of vibrating nerves in the next, drawing from his substantial bag of comic tricks in both cases. Josephine Hogan is delightful as Constance's benevolent but world-weary mother, who thinks it proper to allow infidelity so long as it is concealed. And Kristin Bentley, despite some unease with her accent, shines as the nosy sister everyone loves to hate.

It is a testament to the strength of this cast that the likes of Kristen Tripp Kelley and Kelsey Mogensen turn in peerless performances in their minor roles, as does Jon May as Constance's earnest love interest Bernard.

Brian Cavanagh's straightforward lighting and David Dwyer's set, with its empty picture frames and  vases of brilliant flowers constantly being rearranged, provide a believable backdrop for someone with Constance's sometimes unbelievable equanimity.

While "The Constant Wife" is beyond clever when viewed as pure comedy or even as social commentary, it feels a bit one-dimensional when held to higher standards. For one thing, character development isn't much of a thing -- how about a hint as to how Constance arrived at this radical worldview of hers? -- and the dramatic balance is bound to feel off-kilter when so much of its weight rests on one character.

But because that character has been assigned such a performer as winning as LoConti is in this production, it hardly seems a drawback. Thanks in large part to her, "The Constant Wife" is a constant pleasure.

Theater Review

"The Constant Wife"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Through Feb. 11 in the Andrews Theatre in an Irish Classical Theatre Company production. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 853-4282 or visit irishclassicaltheatre.com.

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