Spoleto 2010 » Theater

Present Laughter: Sophisticated wordplay elevates endearing farce

Stiff Upper Wit

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Like its main character Garry Essendine, Present Laughter has been around the block a few times. Premiered in the 1940s, the play is a reflection of another era when gentlemen didn't answer their own front door and ladies didn't leave the house without wearing a fancy hat. But since Laughter's author is Noel Coward, that reflection is a warped and witty one that gleefully shows the flaws of the narcissistic characters in the show.

Garry knows how he should behave and he's aware of his flaws. He's weak-willed, though, vain and selfish. At 51 his hair is thinning, his stage star looks are fading, but he still has his silver tongue and his repartee. He uses those to survive the farcical goings-on in his hectic home life.

The members of Dublin's Gate Theatre, the acclaimed company from Ireland, understand that while manners may change, human relationships do not. People still cheat, lie, love and get themselves into ludicrous scrapes. The relationships between Garry, his wife Liz, his business colleagues, servants, and mistresses are all clearly delineated. No matter how silly the plot becomes, the characters stay true to themselves and most of them have a sympathetic side, making this an engaging, rewarding night of theatre.

It's amazing how the caddish Garry stays likable throughout the play thanks to Stephen Brennan's energetic performance. Rarely has such an insincere protagonist been played with such sincerity. When we first meet Garry, he's enjoyed a dalliance with Daphne Stillington (charmingly played by charming Jade Yourell), an aspiring actress who's in love with his stage persona. It's an illusion, Garry tells her. In real life, he's not the heroic figure he projects in his dramas. But he's been acting for so long that it's impossible for anyone to tell when he's being genuine any more. That gets him into lots of trouble.

Garry has some good friends and staff whose main purpose in life seems to be keeping him out of trouble. Although he's separated from Liz (Paris Jefferson), she still keeps tabs on him and greets Daphne with cool amusement. Scottish secretary Monica Reed (Fiona Bell) vets his phone calls, juggles his appointments, and adds love notes to "mount pleasant," a slush pile of unanswered mail.

Fred (Dermot Magennis) is a cheerful cockney valet who understands that sex can be fun when it's not bogged down by tons of intrigue. Man to man, Garry and Fred have some of the most honest conversations in the show. Miss Erikson (Barbara Brennan) is a clairvoyant Scandinavian with a sour face who cleans up her employer's sordid messes.

Brennan, Magennis, and Bell both provide sturdy support, giving their roles a realism that overcomes their stereotypes (the wacky foreigner, the straight-talking working class cockney, the pithily forthright Scot). They're all a joy to watch.

Jefferson speaks in a silly sing-song voice that makes her performance far less enjoyable. There's a scene where Liz lectures Garry about his playboy ways; it's one of the few moments when the audience stops watching with rapt attention and gets restless.

Garry's two colleagues are Henry (Michael James Ford) and Morris (Peter Gaynor). They've worked with Garry for decades, relying on his box office draw to pump up their own careers. When their love lives become intertwined, both men start to crack. Ford gives a solid performance, while Gaynor never really rings true. His character is supposed to be melodramatic and he does that very well, but he seems content to get laughs rather than create a complex human being on stage.

The fly in their business ointment is Joanna Lyppiatt (Fiona O'Shaughnessy). She is calculating in her sexual conquests and her attempts to muscle in on Garry's friendships. She's the Yoko Ono to his John Lennon, upsetting the precarious balance of his life.

O'Shaughnessy was described by one critic as "a vampiric Betty Boop." She's a lot more than that. With her seductive posture, husky voice, and slinky grey dress, we can believe that Garry could fall for her wiles despite his better instincts.

The cast is rounded out by John Kavanagh playing the requisite oddball character, a starstruck playwright called Roland Maule. He initiates funny sight gags and totally commits to being strange. Susan Fitzgerald is Lady Saltburn, who brings Daphne back to Garry while remaining oblivious to their relationship. Kavanagh and Fitzgerald know how important their reactions are to help expand the world of the play without overcomplicating it.

With so many characters farcing in and out of Garry's house, it takes the firm hand of director Alan Stanford to maintain consistency. Stanford also directed Lady Windermere's Fan, Pride and Prejudice, and The Constant Wife. He makes sure that every iota of the set is used, from the arm of a sofa to the staircase and piano. Garry seems to be in constant movement, perfect for the fast-paced play.

Set Designer Eileen Diss goes for a Busby Berkeley 1930s living room look, with cream-colored furniture and art deco trimmings. Everything is functional down to the tastefully striped curtains, the soda bottles, and the love letters. It's a good mix of upper-crust clean and a lived-in look.

Peter O'Brien's costumes continue the lavish Hollywood theme. Garry dresses in a tux, black pajamas or the classic Coward look of blazer and cravat. Roland Maule looks like a seedy schoolteacher with his checked shirt, red suspenders, brown jacket, and satchel. Henry and Morris wear pinstripe suits befitting their status as theatrical big shots; the women wear elegant dresses and extraordinary two-tier hats. The cohesive look is enough to suggest luxury without distracting from Garry's plight.

With such a likable lead and supporting characters, this makes for a satisfying evening of theater. Stanford knows when to let Noel Coward's script do the work, rather than trying to add even more wrinkles to the old comedy. Coward was the top insult comedian of his day, and Stephen Brennan relishes his character's acerbic put-downs.

Present Laughter is a smart, accessible example of drawing room humor that only falls short when Jefferson or Gaynor are given center stage. That's mainly because they're in such strong company. Reveling in the clever wordplay, all of the performers celebrate the power of wit in a world where a sharp verbal riposte can rescue a gentleman from any sticky situation.

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