Carole Shelley, William "Biff" McGuire and Paxton Whitehead collectively can boast dozens of Broadway credits, five Tony Award nominations and 144 years of stage, film and television performances--but not one iota of professional acting experience in the plays of W. Somerset Maugham.
That is about to change. South Coast Repertory is interrupting the near-eclipse of the once fabulously popular British playwright to mount a revival of his tart, 1921-vintage comedy, "The Circle." Director Warner Shook, who oversaw the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Kentucky Cycle," handpicked the veteran acting troika that will play one of the two parallel love triangles which drive the play. A warm camaraderie and a readiness to share a laugh were evident as the three actors sat recently at a table in the Costa Mesa theater's lobby for a team interview over carry-out lunches. Whitehead and Shelley have worked together several times during the past 30 years, starting when Whitehead recruited his fellow transplanted Briton to act at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada, where he served as artistic director from 1967 to 1977. They last appeared together in 1995 in Neil Simon's "London Suite" in New York and Seattle.
Shelley, who won a Tony for her role as the actress who befriends the misshapen John Merrick in "The Elephant Man," took a two-month leave of absence from another high-profile Broadway show, "Cabaret." At South Coast Rep, she will play Lady Kitty in Maugham's drawing-room comedy; after "The Circle," she will return to Frulein Schneider, a part she has played for the past two years.
"There's my motivation" for taking on "The Circle," she said, pointing across the table to Whitehead. "He's a very wonderful farceur."
"I'm hearing that from the expert, the real expert," Whitehead rejoined gallantly in a resonant baritone that practically oozes upper-crust English urbanity. He has lived in Irvine since 1987, and playing at South Coast, as he has twice before, affords him a 10-minute commute to work. The first week of rehearsals for "The Circle" proved a bit hectic, though. Days in Costa Mesa were followed by nights in San Diego as he completed his run as Malvolio in an acclaimed "Twelfth Night" at the Globe Theatres.
For Whitehead, who appeared in another Maugham play as a teenage drama student, performing in "The Circle" will complete a family cycle: It was one of the first plays he saw as a boy growing up in Canterbury, England, and it featured his father, Charles, a lawyer and amateur actor, in the same role Whitehead is playing at South Coast. Neither Shook nor the two other veteran cast members has so much as seen a Maugham play before.
McGuire knew but never had worked with Shelley and Whitehead. He said that Shook virtually ordered him to take the part of Lord Porteous and complete what the director calls his "blue-chip group" of actors. A 20-year veteran of the Seattle Repertory Theatre company, McGuire had moved to Los Angeles and taken a year off from acting while finishing his first novel, "Willie's War," a fictionalized memoir of his experiences as a soldier in Germany. There he witnessed the scene at Bergen-Belsen and other newly liberated concentration camps and observed the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
McGuire was in the service in 1945 when, based in England, he started taking theater courses in his spare time. After being discovered in a student production, he soon made his professional debut in "The Time of Your Life," directed at the National Theatre by Tyrone Guthrie. Four years ago, McGuire earned a Tony nomination for his role in Horton Foote's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Young Man From Atlanta."
He got the nickname "Biff" playing left tackle for his high school football team in Hamden, Conn. He never did get to play Biff Loman, the football player in "Death of a Salesman." While cast in the original production of another Arthur Miller play, "A View From the Bridge," McGuire had a chat with Miller in which, he says, the playwright told him, "'You know, you're the only Biff I've ever known."'
The three converge in "The Circle." The year is 1919, some 30 years after a husband's (Whitehead) wife (Shelley) ran off with his best friend (McGuire). The flaming passion that prompted Shelley's Lady Kitty and McGuire's Lord Porteous to defy strict social convention and become exiled pariahs has long since sputtered into rancor, vanity, crankiness and drink. They have returned to England to visit Arnold, the son whom Kitty abandoned along with her husband, Clive. Whitehead's crafty Clive, under a cloak of benevolence, turns up to egg on his estranged wife and his former friend.
But Maugham also gives the battling Kitty and Porteous moments of tenderness. The play turns into a competition between them and Clive for influence over Arnold's wife, Elizabeth. She is on the verge of repeating the past: a suitor, played by Douglas Weston, wants her to leave Arnold and run away with him to a Pacific island.
There was shock value in this scenario in 1921. Now, the cast members note, the firm social strictures that made "The Circle" a high-stakes duel between the inflamed heart and the status-and money-conscious head have been overthrown by changing sexual mores. Still, Shelley said, "there are many more facets one can look into in a production today: to find out what makes these people tick as opposed to what made them shocking."
South Coast artistic director Martin Benson said he has sifted through forgotten scripts during the past few years, trying to find nuggets worth reviving. "The Circle," he said, struck him and producing artistic director David Emmes because its core question still confronts people: "Do we run away and join the circus, or stick to the grindstone?"
When "The Circle" premiered 80 years ago, Maugham was the world's most popular and highly paid playwright. The Englishman's ship came in during 1908, when four of his comedies played simultaneously in London's West End. His career played like a premonition of Neil Simon's as he cranked out the hits while steadily provoking barbs from highbrow critics who accused him of catering to middlebrow tastes. Meanwhile, Maugham, an incredibly rapid and prolific worker, was busy crafting the short stories and novels that have formed his more enduring legacy. Among them are "Of Human Bondage," "The Moon and Sixpence" and "The Razor's Edge."
The last major Maugham production in Southern California was in 1980, when the Globe did "The Constant Wife." In 1975, a touring Ingrid Bergman, her broken foot in a cast, gave a sit-down performance in the title role of "The Constant Wife" at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles.
Before that, among the region's larger theaters, one has to go back to a 1963 staging of "Rain" at the Pasadena Playhouse. Rex Harrison played Porteous in a brief 1989 New York revival of "The Circle"--the last role of his career--and Kathleen Turner made her British stage debut in "Our Betters" at Chichester in 1997.
Maugham died in 1966, a month before his 92nd birthday. He may have dug his grave in the theatrical boards years before that, in candid memoirs that reveal how little charm the stage held for him. He gave up writing plays in the early 1930s; in his 1938 literary autobiography, "The Summing Up," he predicted that "the prose drama to which I have given so much of my life will soon be dead."
Shook and the cast have studied up on Maugham and learned about his coolness toward their vocations: "He's really snarky about directors. I don't know what they did to him," Shook said.
"He didn't like actors. I found that very depressing," Shelley noted.
And yet, Maugham has provided the showcase for Shelley, 72, McGuire, 74 and Whitehead, 63, to display what three accomplished veterans can do. Such opportunities don't arise often.
"There's always an 'aw' when an audience sees anybody over 45 kissing," Shelley said, revealing that she and McGuire will do some smooching onstage.
"I didn't know you do that," Whitehead said, with mock alarm. "I'm not sure I approve."
"Old age comes so fast, doesn't it?" the gentle-voiced McGuire said philosophically. "I'm going to be 75, and I can't believe it. I see these great, dashing roles being offered, and I say, 'I'll do that.' Then I look at myself in the mirror."
Shelley said she used to be furious that people recognized her not for her considerable work in the classics of Shaw and Shakespeare, but for originating on stage, screen and television the part of Gwendolyn Pigeon, one of the dizzy sisters who lived upstairs from Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar in "The Odd Couple."
The passing of time has changed that. "Now I'm amazed and thrilled" at being remembered as a Pigeon, she said. "I think that's the best part [of getting older]. You suddenly go, 'My God, aren't I lucky? I have done something in my career that is a classic of its kind, and I created it."'
"THE CIRCLE," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Dates: Previews begin Friday. Opens Sept 7. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Also, Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 7.Prices: $19-$52. Pay-what-you-will matinee, Sept. 8. Phone: (714) 708-5555.