Love’s the answer, what’s the question? 

W. Somerset Maugham’s "The Circle," now at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, takes place in England, in 1920. The circle (to be explained below) began 30 years ago, which means more than a decade before the death of Queen Victoria, and therefore way ahead of the official — and certainly the de facto — end of the Victorian Era.

Surely the England of 1890 was very different from the flapper era of the early 1920s, and yet, there is no indication of that in the story, the situations and the characters of "The Circle"; then and now seem pretty muchthe same.

This lack of basic historical perspective is just one aspect of this play of many elements. It is a mild-mannered comedy, a fairly interesting romantic story, a tentative exploration of the battle of the sexes — all smooth, well-constructed and enjoyable. A great play it isn’t. (Maugham himself said that his plays are "not of action but of conversation," but even in that regard, the talk doesn’t measure up to Shaw or Coward, just two of the playwrights other critics tend to mention.)

Yet the A.C.T. production, in Mark Lamos’ clean-and-crisp direction, on John Arnone’s clean-and-pretty set, and with some excellent performances, is theater to be recommended, if perhaps not in a wholly sanguine manner; blood is not much in evidence here.

The beginning of the "Circle," whispered and gossiped about, is the long ago scandal in London when Lady Catherine, a young wife, the toast of town (seen in the play in her 30 years older manifestation, acted by the wonderful Kathleen Widdoes), runs away with Lord Porteous (Ken Ruta, in a grand return to his home company of many years) — who "could have become prime minister" but for the scandal — leaving Clive, the devastated husband (Philip Kerr, in a consistent, low-key performance) and a 5-year-old boy.

"The Circle" is completed (or will it? no spoilers to be had here) in the "present" of 1920, all characters converging in one place, when the boy is a grown, and rather dull, man (James Waterston, in a difficult, thankless role), married to the young, beautiful, vivacious Elizabeth (Allison Jean White, in a mesmerizing Act 1 "Doll’s House" performance, losing steam as romance beckons).

Enter handsome, young, apparently simple-minded Edward, home from his work in the Malayan frontier of the Empire, "making love" (courting — or does that word too need an explanation today?) to fetching-but-neglected Elizabeth. Will they duplicate the escape/scandal of the young husband’s mother — the man abandoned as a child, about to be abandoned again?

Maugham stops at creating the situation, but then does not come near plumbing the potential depths thereof, in sharp contrast with all the substance in his "Moon and the Sixpence," "Of Human Bondage" and many other works. Scenes between the young lovers of today in the second and third acts are involving enough, but humor and anguish are both skin-deep. (During the first 20 expository minutes of the play, the opening-night audience kept trying to laugh, expecting punch-line-a-minute sitcom, where a smiling or amused attention would have been far more appropriate.)

There is something naive or old-fashioned about "The Circle," either endearing or disappointing, depending on your point of view, but Widdoes, Ruta and Kerr create memorable performances out of cardboard figures.

The Circle ***

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; closes Feb. 4

Tickets: $17.50-$81.50

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org

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