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Urbane Cynicism from Maugham

Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns, and Stewart Granger star in revival. THEATER: REVIEW

THE CIRCLE Romantic comedy by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by Brian Murray. Starring Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns, Stewart Granger. At the Ambassador Theatre. RARELY revived except Off Broadway, ``The Circle,'' by W. Somerset Maugham, is belatedly getting the attention it deserves. Maugham's comedy about wandering wives and forsaken husbands has turned up in a gilt-edged showing, star-topped by Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns, and Stewart Granger (in his New York stage debut).

``The Circle'' evokes a privileged British world of the 1920s. It was a time when scandals occurred but divorce could ruin a political career, when young men served their sovereigns and made their fortunes in Empire outposts, and when the upper classes dressed for dinner.

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Maugham described these comic pieces (of which ``The Circle'' is considered the best) as ``indulgent cynicism ... urbane, sentimental at times; ... sometimes it draws a moral, but with a shrug of the shoulders as if to invite you to lay no too great stress on it.''

In ``The Circle,'' Maugham is nonchalantly contemplating the effects of wife errancy. Charming young Elizabeth Champion-Cheney (Roma Downey) is married to stuffy MP Arnold Champion-Cheney (Robin Chadwick).

Much to Arnold's annoyance, Elizabeth has invited his mother, Kitty (Glynis Johns), and her longtime lover, Lord Porteous (Rex Harrison), to be guests at the Champion-Cheney's posh Dorset country house.

Thirty years prior to the play's opening, Kitty had deserted her husband and five-year-old son to run off with Porteous and live abroad. While Arnold takes a dour view of Elizabeth's impulsive hospitality, his father, Clive Champion-Cheney (Stewart Granger), regards the surprise situation with philosophical good humor. Maugham needs only the presence of Edward Luton (Harley Ventor), a handsome young planter from the Malay states, to create a second generation triangle when Elizabeth and Edward fall in love.

The ironies of the dilemma and Maugham's amusement over the vagaries of human behavior receive their full due in the sleek performance directed by Brian Murray. With his unfailing light comedy touch, Sir Rex transforms the crusty curmudgeon of act one into the benign conspirator of act three.

Miss Johns, sporting a feathery cap to match Kitty's feather-brained conversation, nevertheless sees the pathos as well as the foolish romanticism of the inconstant wife. Mr. Granger assumes the cheerful demeanor befitting an erstwhile MP who has come to enjoy his unsought freedom in various ways.

The cast as a whole, including Patricia Conolly as a family friend, is first-rate. The comedy ends in laughter. But the last laugh belongs to Maugham.

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Desmond Heeley's drawing-room set is as picturesquely decorous as an English drawing-room set should be. It looks out upon a garden under a cloudless sky (lighting by John Michael Deegan).

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