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STAGE REVIEW

Merrimack's 'Breadwinner' takes sharp aim at youthful vanity

LOWELL -- For the many boomers who despair before the glib egotism of their children, help is at hand. Everything they've ever wanted to say to their spoiled spawn, W. Somerset Maugham crafted into ''The Breadwinner," his 1931 play now in a smartly realized production at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Of course, catching this gem means a hike to Lowell, but it's worth it; sometimes the best show in Boston simply isn't quite in Boston.

Maugham is enjoying a revival these days, and it's easy to see why. Although the form of his well-made plays feels dated, the ideas behind them seem absolutely up-to-the-minute. In fact ''The Breadwinner" reminds us how much of life our current theater, preoccupied as it is with identity politics and provocation, simply leaves out. Maugham calmly slices and dices not just the vanity of the young, but much of late capitalism as well -- in short, pop culture and market culture, our current sacred cows. That he does so from the perspective of a weary man of the world rather than a naive radical makes his diagnosis only more compelling. Our lives are killing us, he says with a sad smile, and we need to find a way out.

His eponymous breadwinner, Charles Battle, stuns his family by doing precisely that. Maugham opens his comedy-drama in the comfy quarters of suburban London, where the Battle children are entertaining their friends with a bit of tennis, and complaining, as young people do, about their luxurious lot. Why can't they have a car of their own, and a clay court rather than a grass one? Come to think of it, why can't Mummy and Daddy be put out to pasture and simply leave their money behind? Indeed, why not kill them off entirely? ''When people have outlived their utility, say at 40," opines the arrogant Patrick, ''They ought to be put out of their misery."

Ah, youth! Of course, folly isn't limited to them, and soon Battle's wife and her best friend launch their own chorus of complaint -- which is promptly shut down by the shell-shocked Battle himself (Jack Gilpin), who gives notice that he's giving it all -- and them all -- up for good.

Maugham doesn't have much more in the way of plot, which makes for a somewhat redundant second act. Still, the mild acid of ''The Breadwinner" feels like balm in these days of dueling outrage and sanctimony, and the cast at Merrimack -- which has seen the play through a run in New York, where it was co-produced by the Keen Company -- knows just how to etch its best lines.

Appropriately enough, the elder actors prove more effective than the younger, who slightly overplay their arch delivery. Still, Joe Delafield more than earns his laughs as young Patrick, and Margaret Lancy finds the hard little core of would-be minx Diana. They don't stand a chance, however, against the poise of Alicia Roper and Jennifer Van Dyck, who are smoothly superb as two very different -- but equally deluded -- suburban matrons. And as the embattled Battle, Gilpin brings a haunted, mournful air to his abdication; he bids these biddies adieu more in sorrow than in anger.

I was even sorrier to see him go -- and to say goodbye to this elegant production.

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