Present Laughter: The Crème de la Crème
Wow! When was the last time you saw a sophisticated, drawing room comedy which was so right, so satisfyingly perfect that it put a tear in your eye? Possibly never? Then immediately order your tickets for the scintillating new production of Noël Coward's marvelous Present Laughter at the Two River Theatre in Red Bank and then prepare yourself for that exhilarating new experience. I do not think I have ever used one or two of the above affected adjectives in over a decade of reviewing theatre in New Jersey, but they are called forth by the uniquely bracing quality of this play and production.
Present Laughter, written by Coward as a vehicle for himself, is a joyous ode to the theatre and those whose perseverance and dedication keep it alive. Despite the vast changes in the cultural status of theatre; style and taste in comedy; and morality (although Coward was far ahead of his time in the latter), the sensibility of the play and the the attitudes and morality of its characters feel fresh, modern and true.
The year is 1938. The setting is the duplex London studio apartment of aging 41-year-old debonair English stage matinee idol Garry Essendine. The time period is over the course of several days prior to Garry's scheduled departure for Africa where he will be performing a six play repertory season. Despite being preening and self centered, Garry is a likeably witty and convivial individual who is ridiculously concerned with maintaining his image as an irresistible man-about-town. Essendine is the charismatic star around whom almost everyone we meet orbits.
A major crisis is developing in the loyal inner circle which cocoons Garry and manages and safeguards his career and reputation. That group is made up of his not quite ex-wife Liz Essendine, who left his abode years ago because of his indiscretions, but remains his loyal advisor and confidante; Monica Reed, his sarcastic, loyal secretary; and his producer Henry Lyppiatt and manager Morris Dixon. Henry has been married to Joanna, who is not part of the inner circle, for five years. The crisis emerges when it is learned that Joanna is having an affair with Morris who is completely smitten with her.
The efforts of Liz (with the help of Garry and Monica) to extricate Morris from this affair and keep knowledge of it from Henry lead to hilarious farcical high jinks. However, the situation eventually spirals out of control in no small part because of the heedless determination of the sultry and predatory Joanna to conquer her prey. Even Garry will find her irresistible.
Furthermore, Garry is encumbered with Daphne, a twenty-one-year-old society maiden who has gotten him to allow her to stay overnight by claiming that she lost her latchkey. Daphne doesn't understand that his romantic entreaties to her were not intended for anything more than to facilitate an evening of mutual pleasure. (Even her aunt, Lady Saltburn, puts in an appearance.) His apartment is also invaded by Roland Maule, a pretentious, overly zealous aspiring playwright. Neither will prove easy to get rid of.
Since Present Laughter is not a product of today's theatre economics which make writing a play with eleven roles unthinkable, also present to entertain us and care (albeit grudgingly) for Garry are Miss Erikson, his spiritualist maid who never removes her cigarette from her mouth, and Fred, his insolent butler.
Eventually, Garry does display intelligence and an emerging maturity for which he is rewarded in a manner which is witty, intelligent, perfectly calibrated and oh, so satisfying.
Michael Cumpsty wears the mantle of Garry Essendine with a charming sense of detachment and self awareness. His Garry acts as ridiculously as he does more out of convenience and habit than necessity and delusion. Garry's only act of bad behavior is toward Joanna, his producer's wife. However, their seduction scene is directed and performed in such a manner that it is hardly possible to conclude that Gerry had any choice in the matter. Cumpsty is equally adept and light footed in displaying the beginning of Garry's evolution at the play's conclusion.
Kaitlin Hopkins portrays Liz Essendine with delightful charm and sophistication to spare. Veanne Cox's arch, deadpan line readings and the very timbre of her voice are startling in their perfection. Cox also maintains an intriguing ambiguity as to the extent of her attachment to Garry. Leighton Bryan is so formidably strong and seductive as Joanna that she appears invincible. This adds to the rich satisfaction of Coward's resolution of the predicament in which she places Garry and friends.
The performances are strong throughout the entire ensemble. Hayley Treider as Daphne is a silly and likeable foil for Cumpsty. James Riordan (Morris) and Mark Capri (Hugo) display distinctly interesting personalities as, (respectively) Cumpsty's manager and producer. Cole Escola is amusing as Roland Maule, the woebegone aspiring playwright. Camille Saviola as Miss Erikson scores big with her singing. Richard Hollis is most wryly enjoyable as Fred. Robin Mosley rounds out the cast with her solid Lady Saltburn.
Tony Straiges' largely all white with silver accents, art deco drawing room set features a stairway leading to an upper hall, a large entrance alcove with a big window and visible additional rooms. Its furnishings and decorations include chandeliers, a piano, statuary and lots of plants. It is beautiful and eminently playable. Tilly Grimes' beautiful, evocative costumes enhance the production and amplify the text right on down to Liz Essendine's smart little pillbox hat.
David Lee's direction excels throughout. Lee's production makes it clear that there is more weight to this semi-autobiographical play than its reputation would credit. Yet, all of its delightfully frothy humor is fully intact. Lee's staging of the scene in which Joanna seduces Garry is sharply and convincingly staged, managing to exonerate him from any blame. This contributes much to allowing us to fully sympathize with Garry (as we should).
Furthermore, Lee's employment and manner of employment of Coward's popular song "Mad About the Boy" from his 1932 revue Words and Music is a coup de théâtre which adds mightily to our entertainment. Prior to each of the play's four scenes, one or more of Gerry's admirers sing a portion of the song either with its original lyrics or with revised lyrics written (to be sung by a male) for a revised version of that revue which opened on Broadway in 1939.
I cannot remember a production of a Noël Coward comedy which has approached the joyous perfection of the Present Laughter that director David Lee, his memorable cast, and the Two River Theatre Company are bringing to us. Thus, I would like to second a quote from the prescient Manchester Guardian review of the 1942 original London production: "One is tempted to cast discretion to the winds and predict that this will be remembered as the best comedy of its kind and generation ... one of those rare occasions when the critic must claim the privilege of his fellow-playgoers, simply to marvel, admire, and enjoy wholeheartedly." Hear, hear!
Present Laughter continues performances (Evenings: Wednesdays 7 PM; Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Wednesday 1 PM/ Saturday, Sunday 3 PM) through June 30, 2013, at the Two River Theatre Company, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
Present Laughter by Noël Coward; directed by David Lee
Daphne Stillington……………………Hayley Treider