KPBS AIRDATE: April 28, 2006
Relationships can be trying, whether they’re marital or professional. And titles can be double entendres. The Old Globe is offering a hard-hitting double-header: two works of word play, written nearly a century apart, featuring liaisons that are either comical/fanciful or factual/historical.
Best known for novels like “Of Human Bondage,” W. Somerset Maugham set a record in 1908, with four plays running simultaneously in London theaters. In 1926, he wrote “The Constant Wife,” a comedy of marital manners, rife with wit and wicked social commentary. The main character’s name is Constance, a strong-willed woman who acknowledges that m arriage may be a constant in our lives, but it requires constant adaptation to changing situations — including inconstancy.
Next door, there’s “Trying,” a fact-based, May-December, Odd Couple account of the final year in the life of Judge Francis Biddle, a supercilious and irascible octogenarian whose days of trying cases are over, but he’s no less trying to his new young secretary, whose predecessors have all quit in tears. The 2004 drama by Joanna McClelland Glass chronicles the playwright’s early experience in the employ of the former Attorney General and chief U.S. judge of the Nuremberg Trials. He’s a frail but feisty East Coast patrician, highly educated, decorated, pedantic, disorganized and intolerant of personal interactions and grammatical errors. She comes from a humble background in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her father was an alcoholic bully. She’s efficient and energetic, lonely in her new marriage, anxious to become a writer.
What this disparate duo shares is determination, perseverance, a love of poetry and a hatred of social injustice. Though the barbs fly, the two learn to adjust to each other, in this conventional script that sports more humor and conflict in the first act than the predictable second. But with its evocative recordings of Roosevelt, Hitler and the Kennedys, it’s a compelling review of 20th century history. What rescues the play from mediocrity is the production. Director Rick Seer is a master at teasing out character depth and nuance. And his cast is impeccable. Jonathan McMurtry does some of his best, most meticulous work as the snappish judge who’s chafing at the downward spiral of his physical and mental capacities. Christine Marie Brown, a graduate of the Globe/USD Masters program, brings warmth, heart and tensile strength to the secretary Sarah.
Another Globe/USD alum is the centerpiece of “The Constant Wife.” Henny Russell makes the proto-feminist Constance a cool, calm comic presence, excellently abetted by imperious Kandis Chappell as her dowager Mom and Wynn Harmon as her suavely slimy, inconstant spouse.
Both productions are beautifully designed. And both plays have something to say – whether it’s about the machinations of marriage, the seminal moments of history, or the debility of age.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.