Early in Act Three of "Home and Beauty," which opened at the Eisenhower Theater Saturday night, Rosemary Harris has decided to seek a package divorce from her two husbands. Her solicitor, played by Jose Ferrer, lays out the recommended procedure.
Husband A (the one presumed dead in the Battle of Ypres) and Husband B (his successor, formerly his best friend) are each to perform three carefully prearranged acts of marital cruelty, culminating in a pseudo-adulterous liaison with a professional "intervener."
When Husband A suggests he will be happy to commit this last offense without the solicitor's assistance, Ferrer's eyebrows arch high in astonishment.
"I am shocked and horrified by your suggestion!" he declares. "Do you expect a man in my position to connive at immorality?"
For Ferrer, this is a juicy moment and one that registers all the more tellingly since it comes just when this great big perfumed bubble bath of a comedy seems about to drown in its meringuelike froth.
If the director by any chance told Ferrer his small part would be "the one they'll remember," that old casting ploy was never uttered more truthfully.
But the director was, in this instance, Ferrer himself. So there may be a few deluded souls - especially given Washington's renowned sensitivity to potential conflicts of interest - who will wonder whether he deliberately set out to render Acts One and Two immobile in order to have the audience properly grateful for his own entrance in Act Three.
A cold analysis of the facts, however, indicates that others besides Ferrer took part in the decision to provide the audience with three acts' worth of words and only one act's worth of wit. At the very least, the role of the trustees of Kennedy Center Productions, Inc., who approved the play, and of Somerset Maugham, who wrote it, demand acknowledgment.
If all playwrights were entitled to have two or three works buried with them Maugham might well have chosen this honor for "Home and Beauty," a 1919 drawing-room comedy whose original American title, "Too Many Husbands," fairly well summed up the idea.
The woman with the spouse surplus is the endearingly indolent Victoria Cardew/Lowndes, who has just spent four selfless years giving teas for wounded World War I soldiers, making do with only two fires in her London mansion, and serving on "I don't know how many committees."
Act One, set in Victoria's bedroom (where Oliver Smith has hung more striped pink wallpaper than has probably ever been seen before in one place at one time), concerns the return of Husband A from a German POW camp and the awkward task of informing him that his best army buddy is now Husband B.
This act also offers Rosemary Harris the opportunity to act from a lounge chair, which she does with relish, and the first of numerous opportunities, as she is feverishly powdering her nose in anticipation of her lost husband's entrance to proclaim that, fortunately, she has "no personal vanity."
In Act Two, the husbands, played by Keith Baxter (A) and Remak Ramsey (B), slowly size up each other's intentions. What they discover, to their mutual horror, is that each is genuinely eager to withdraw in the other's favor. What they will discover an act later is that Victoria herself will gladly oblige them both so she can marry her influential friend Leicester, who has just bought a county house with "only 28 bedrooms."
But before they can all come to an understanding, Victoria must interview - or be interviewed by - a prospective family cook, a particularly haughty woman who insists that she never works after midday and promises a main meal of "a nice little bit of meat and a milk pudding."
So desperate is Victoria, who has been losing servants by the score, that she accedes to all these conditions and points out, by way of inducement, that "there's just me and these two gentlement."
"I suppose," says the cook, "you are married to one of them."
"I don't know what you mean by that," replies Victoria. "I'm married to both."
At this, the cook is aghast. "If you ladies think you're going to 'ave two 'usbands while many a working woman can't even get one - well, all I says is, it's not justice. I've bin a Conservative all me life, but thank God I've got a vote now, and I tell you straight what I'm going to do. I'm going to vote Labour."
Some may find this scene (and, alas, there are others like it) a bit unsettling in its predictability. But far more alarming is the gradual realization it helps brings to a head - that the idea of two men with conjugal claims to the same bed was, in 1919, so deliciously touchy as to obviate the need for virtually all further surprises.
To deliver this message, the Kennedy Center has assembled a fine cast. Harris' last appearance here was her triumphant one in "The Royal Family," and Baxter has been quietly memorable on a number of occasions, including as Hal in the Orson Welles "Falstaff."
But neither they nor their cohorts seem at their sharpest in "Home and Beauty." Perhaps a vicious circle is at work: Weak dialogue begets limp audience response begets insufficient actor enthusiasm. Perhaps, too, director Ferrer found it hard to recover his full faculties so soon after the sapping experience of "Carmelina."
HOME AND BEAUTY, by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by Jose Ferrer; sets by Oliver Smith; lighting by Thomas Skelton; costumes by Jane Greenwood. Produced by Roger L. Stevens.
With Rosemary Harris, Keith Baxter, Remak Ramsey, Dorothy Blackburn, Paddy Croff, Brenda Curtis, Beulah Garrick, Jeanette Landis, Richard Neilson, Ian Thomson, Joyce Worsley and Jose Ferrer.
At the Eisenhower Theater through July 21. CAPTION: Picture, Rosemary Harris and Keith Baxter in "Home and Beauty."