Review: APT's 'Too Many Husbands'

The period comedy resembles a modern sitcom

Jul 12, 2013

James Ridge, Deborah Staples and Marcus Truschinski in 'Too Many Husbands'

James Ridge, Deborah Staples and Marcus Truschinski in 'Too Many Husbands'

Photo by Zane Williams

It doesn’t take long for Victoria, the vain and frilly, um, heroine of W. Somerset Maugham’s Too Many Husbands, to make her feelings about the institute of marriage plain. Nattering away to her chatty manicurist (Colleen Madden), she offhandedly refers to marriage as a “habit.”

"Men are not naturally addicted to matrimony," she sniffs. "You have to train them to it."

Victoria (Deborah Staples) is sure addicted, but not because she loves the notion of love and companionship—in Maugham’s wry vision of post-World War I Britain, running in repertory at American Players Theater through September 14, marriage is just an obligatory step on an endless social ladder. But Victoria, possibly the most blindingly self-unaware character since Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback, is in for a major stumble: Her presumed-dead first husband (a dryly wry Jim Ridge) reappears to discover she’s now married to his best friend (Marcus Truschinski). Awk-ward.

This is the sort of period comedy that’s been a summer staple in Spring Green for years—the difference is that the author of the play has usually been Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw or Noel Coward. Too Many Husbands isn’t on anyone’s A-list, but it probably should be. In APT’s hands, it’s as hilarious and biting as anything Shaw ever penned.

Just not necessarily as even. As Victoria, Staples is often hilarious, but her character’s high-pitched histrionics are hard to sustain and hard to endure for long; she’s much better served when she’s playing a broader range of emotions off both Ridge and Truschinski, which means the play’s second and third acts offer a little more balance and nuance to the zaniness. The second act is the real highlight, with Freddy and Bill doing an abrupt and hilarious about face, each of them trying to use their awkward situation as a chance to escape Victoria without being caught or wounding her feelings. Ridge and Truschinski do everything short of gnawing off their own legs to get out the door, tweaking and outmaneuvering each other with a great mix of both verbal and physical comedic touches. Of course, Victoria’s interested in paring down the problematic husband count, too, not because it’s improper to have more than one, but because her unintentional polygamy’s scaring off all the potential servants. (Quelle d’ommage.)  Besides, there’s a bombastic shipping magnate (Jonathan Smoots, in randy, mustache-blowing mode) waiting to be husband number three.

It’s interesting to note the ways in which the play, for all of its period affectations, resembles a modern sitcom, right down to the fact that Victoria has a pair of young kids who scarcely appear onstage and only nominally figure into the plot. In a twist worthy of a lost Three’s Company episode, the third act features Freddy and Bill forced, by necessity, to act like a married couple, splitting the household chores and bickering over how long to cook a steak.

The cast also has the rapport of a married couple—one that’s been together for decades, not months. In the performance I caught, Truschinski uncharacteristically tripped on a line in the third act, only to have Ridge respond with a no-glance, ad-lib joke that Truschinski then riffed on as if nothing had gone awry. That’s the kind of trust on which great theater’s made.

The actors get the credit for keeping the audience in stitches, but Nayna Ramey’s set design deserves a few props, too. Everything, from the set framing and the windows to the fireplace mantel, is set at skewed angles, like one of those point-perspective drawings from your high school art class. Not only does it emphasize the self-centered natures of the characters, but it also adds to the sense that reason (and everything else) is always just a few seconds from falling off the table. Just like it was in post-World War I Britain.

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about and reviewing Madison-area theater for nearly 15 years.

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