“The tables of consanguinity,” one of Bernard Shaw’s characters remarks, “have a natural basis in a natural repugnance.” Whether the remark is true or untrue in general, it certainly applies to the characters of Somerset Maugham’s 1930 comedy The Breadwinner, which, as revived in this amicable but bumpy production by Keen Company, turns out to be another intriguing step forward in restoring Maugham’s reputation as a major post-Shavian supplier of social comedy. Combining an amusing look at period manners with a sharply pointed moral that can still sting in our own time, Maugham’s elegantly spun tale treats of one traumatic day in the life of a suburban stockbroker’s family. First the younger generation drifts onstage, in tennis whites, to grouse about how boring parents are, with the scion of the family roundly declaring that all people should be put to death at 40, when their lives are effectively over. Next comes the broker’s wife and her best gal pal, wife of the family solicitor who is also the husband’s wartime buddy and next-door neighbor. They whisper about flirtations with a stranger and bemoan the utter boredom of husbands.
Anxiety sets in with the solicitor’s arrival: It seems he had an appointment that morning with the stockbroker, who never turned up. Added to which, the recent suicide of a ruined client is about to play hob with the broker’s business. Panic sets in: Should Scotland Yard be notified or the local lake dragged? Calm returns with the title character’s arrival, but only temporarily. No, he hasn’t killed himself, and yes, he’s arranged a way to cover the dead client’s losses so that his brokerage firm won’t go belly up. But don’t relax too soon: More bored with his family than they are with him, the hero is also bored with his job, his way of life, and even with the stock exchange’s minimal but genuine sense of ethics. (The notion of stockbrokers having an ethical sense is one of the few points that locate the play definitively in the past.) There follows a succession of scenes in which the characters variously try to argue, shame, wheedle, or, in two cases, seduce the existential stockbroker out of his decision to drop everything and head for parts unknown. But, like so many of Maugham’s characters, he proves almost incorrigibly obstinate, leaving what would otherwise be an elegantly framed work with a short sharp shock of an ending.
For all its neat turnings, Maugham’s play has one central flaw: His refusal to tell us what, beyond the usual midlife crisis, would drive his hero to turn his back on everything he’s known and done for all his adult life, puts the work at a chilly emotional distance from us. The other characters are unlikable or, at best, endearingly silly; the hero, with whom we might stand a chance of empathizing, is no more than a puzzle, and the suspicion keeps rising that the puzzle may only be a superficial one. The war is constantly mentioned (both broker and solicitor are WW I veterans), as is the nebulous concept of “adventure,” but the mentions never quite ring true. It takes something bigger—a religious vocation, an identity crisis—for a person to chuck everything, especially when he’s painted, as Maugham paints him, as so relentlessly ordinary and settled. In Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence, written around the same time, the stockbroker hero, modeled on Gauguin, chucks everything to live for art in the South Seas, but neither of those concepts comes into the playscript, and Gauguin’s family knew him for a desperately adventurous painter long before he ditched his bank job. Probably Maugham’s own shattered marriage and disguised sexuality were among the drama’s motivating factors, but as he primly keeps them to himself, they had to wait for the later revelation of No Coward’s A Song at Twilight (based on the idea of the elderly Maugham being forced to confront his homosexual past). Instead, The Breadwinner supplies social amusement with a faint feel of contrivance, as if the play’s substance had been hidden somewhere offstage and the actors prevented from finding it.
Not that Carl Forsman’s cast would have an easy time doing so in any case, for Forsman, whose revivals for Keen Company are usually more delicately played, has made an error surprising in the subtle-touch director of Sin. Emphasizing the play’s antiquity, he saddles his cast with arch inflections and wobbly Anglo accents, which very few of them handle with grace. In doing so he even overlooks the major stylistic clue Maugham has left buried in the dialogue: The hero instructs his daughter that to go on the stage she must learn to seem natural, which is the most difficult thing in the world. Luckily, Jack Gilpin, who plays the wayward stockbroker, and Jennifer Van Dyck, as the neighbor’s wife who thinks he covets her, have both mastered this painstaking art, so that Gilpin’s dogged straightforwardness holds the evening together, and his big second-act scene with Van Dyck—one of Maugham’s juiciest comic plums—rises like a peak out of the action, to score a rousing hand from the audience, giving a forceful clue to what the rest of the production might have been, and to how many laughs lie unmined in this seemingly somber, autumnal play.