Geraldine Page stars in Maugham's `The Circle'

The Circle Comedy by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by Stephen Porter. The Mirror Repertory Company has turned from the congenial urban casuals of William Saroyan's ``The Time of Your Life'' and the futile bourgeoisie of Maxim Gorky's ``Children of the Sun'' to the privileged worldlings of W. Somerset Maugham's ``The Circle.''

Geraldine Page rejoins the company as artist-in-residence for the 1921 British sampling of realism with a light touch. Even for so accomplished an actress, Miss Page is having a notable season. In December, she created the role of the maternally possessive Lorraine in Sam Shepard's ``A Lie of the Mind.'' More recently, she received her ninth Oscar nomination for her touching performance in the Horton Foote film ``The Trip to Bountiful.''

In ``The Circle,'' Miss Page is a flamboyantly amusing Lady Kitty, the long-divorced wife of Clive Champion-Cheney (Bryan Clark). Thirty years in the past Kitty created a scandal by deserting Clive and running off with his best friend, Lord ``Hughie'' Porteous (W. B. Brydon). Clive's son, Arnold (Gordon McConnell), has grown to stuffy manhood without ever having known his mother. The return to England of the now elderly elopers prompts Arnold's romantic young wife, Elizabeth (Denise Stephenson), to invite them as houseguests to the Champion-Cheney country house. Clive's unexpected arrival completes the reunion and the comic possibilities.

Maugham nimbly created the circumstances in which his upper-class types will confront the past, present, and possible future. Just as the once captivating Kitty sacrificed all for love by leaving Clive, Elizabeth is being tempted by ardent Teddy Luton (Francois de la Giroday) into a similar infidelity. Hence the ironic title.

Much of the point of ``The Circle'' springs from Maugham's depiction of Lady Kitty. Instead of ``the pale, frail lady in black satin and old lace'' of Elizabeth's imaginings, Kitty is a painted, ridiculous caricature of an erstwhile beauty. Hughie, once a prime candidate for prime minister, has deteriorated into an elderly spoiled child. Will the spectacle of this ludicrous old couple deter Elizabeth from her own contemplated defection? Maugham shrewdly balances possibilities, characters, and epigrams.

``The Circle'' typifies Maugham's mastery of realistic light comedy, once described as ``slightly satirical, but without bitterness or any ethical implications.'' The dramatist takes his characters as he finds them and then observes their foolishness with a kind of amused detachment that doesn't preclude some broadly comic set pieces. The playwright leaves Clive, Kitty, and Hughie laughing uproariously -- but not for the same reason.

The star turn in the revival at the Theatre at Saint Peter's Church belongs to Miss Page's Lady Kitty, a giddy grande dame impervious to almost anything but flattery. Whether mistaking a visiting stranger for her son, confusing Sheraton with Sheridan, or discoursing on everything from cosmetics to politics, Miss Page creates a portrait of dauntless fatuity. But when Kitty's fragile defenses momentarily crumble, Miss Page seizes on the poignancy of the moment.

The revival staged by Stephen Porter has many good moments and some not so good. Mr. Clark effectively understates Clive's civilized urbanity. As Hughie, Mr. Brydon tends at times to confuse vulgarity with aristocratic bad manners. Understandably, the younger players encounter some difficulties in making themselves at home in the long-ago world of Maugham. All concerned have been helped by James Tilton's hospitable, well-lighted setting and Gail Cooper-Hecht's 1920s costumes, especially Kitty's voluminous, exaggerated high fashion.

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