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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Present Laughter
Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's reviews of Grease and Archduke

Jennifer Chapman, Barbara Heninger, Alex Draa,
Charles Woodson Parker and John Stephen King

Photo by Michael Kruse Craig
In a period when so many currently produced plays and musicals—both new ones and those revived from the past—come with messages and meanings full of dire warnings about our current societal, political, and environmental issues, how refreshing it is to go the theatre once in a while just to laugh and enjoy without having to think very much or to come away burdened with important questions to contemplate. Noël Coward was a master at writing brilliant comedies of manners whose primary purpose is simply to entertain. None is better in doing so than his Present Laughter, a play in which he invites us to laugh at him since its primary character, an actor, is a self-avowed caricature of the famed playwright himself.

Pear Theatre presents in its intimate setting a Present Laughter that bursts at the seams with riotous comedy propelled by a stage full of memorably quirky characters who get themselves and each other into a myriad of messes through adulteries, seductions, threats of blackmail, star-worshipping, and a star's ego that knows no bounds. In doing so, the Pear proves once again that this is the small-size theatre that can take on big-stage ventures with full aplomb and total success.

Charles Woodson Parker steps into the part of 1939 stage star Garry Essendine, a role the playwright himself played in the 1942 London premiere and one that likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Peter O'Toole, George C. Scott, Victor Garber, and most recently, Kevin Kline have undertaken in the subsequent decades. Even with such an illustrious train of Essendines preceding him, Mr. Parker brings his own fresh, fussy, and funny flavor to the role of this actor whose every waking moment is spent as if always on stage in front of an adoring audience. His delivery of even the most simple, everyday remarks is as if delivering a script just written that moment for him, with gestures grand, poses purposefully dramatic, and facial expressions that no longer need rehearsal since they are already so well practiced. He moves about as if the spotlight is always on him, even noting to no one's surprise, "I'm always acting."

Garry is soon to leave for a theatrical tour of Africa, but in the meantime, he is fighting at forty-two a bout of mid-life denial by bringing home young women who fawn over him and seem always to lose their own abode's latchkey after a night of revelry with him. Twenty-one-year-old Daphne Stillington is the latest to arise the next morning from the extra bedroom, entering in men's pajamas and robe and demanding of household staff—who hardly seem to notice her, their being evidently used to such early morning entrances—coffee, breakfast, and Mr. Essendine's immediate awakening and presence. While the first two requests are perfunctorily delivered, the last is not one to be touched. Much to her pouty protests, none of the staff dares to wake Garry until Garry wants to emerge from his upstairs bedroom.

Jennifer Chapman is a delicious delight as the whiny, spoiled child who determinedly declares she is now an adult worthy of Garry Essendine's devoted love. Even after he arrives and sends her back to the extra bedroom, there to eat her breakfast and then to dress, it is clear that she is not going to allow herself to be just another one-night flirtation of his and is not yet done in her pursuit of his affection.

As she retires, the apartment Garry calls his studio becomes more and more like a Grand Central Station. Already running in and out are his bustling staff members: Fred (Tyler Pardini) is a former cruise line steward who seems to play much the same role for Garry, prancing (nearly peacock-strutting) about with a big smile and unctuous politeness. Quite the opposite is the absolutely hilarious interpretation that Monica Cappuccini gives to the rather ancient housekeeper, Miss Erikson. She bangs her way into the living room through a swinging door she kicks with the might of a star soccer player, wagging a cigarette from her red-smudged lips and generously applying an always-present feather duster to whatever and whoever is in her path. She is gruff and growly but clearly a household treasure to be tolerated and even loved by all.

Into this domestic mix enters each day Garry's long-time assistant, the exacting, sophisticated Monica Reed, who is never afraid of taking on Garry with a tit-for-tat round of insults while also always trying to amend the difficulties his wandering eyes and too-easily-given promises seem to get him into. Caitlin Papp's Monica talks in a mega-volume voice that usually supersedes the levels of all those around her, and her voice wonderfully climbs high mountains and dips quickly into low valleys as her tonal effects move several octaves in scale in only one sentence.

On this particular morning, the arrivals soon become an onslaught of ever more fascinating visitors. Garry's ex, Liz (who is still legally married to him), arrives asking, "What's God up to?" and enters just in time to see Daphne emerge from the spare bedroom, now in her full evening and formal attire. Liz is not shocked and slightly smirks at the sight of the girl, but she does subsequently embark into a lecture to Garry, noting with a wry, knowing smile, "You have reached a moment in life when a little restraint would be becoming." Kristin Walter is a powerhouse as the cheerfully opinionated is-and-isn't wife of Garry who still knows how to pull his strings, to punch his hot buttons, and to do both while observing with amusement the fray of chaos usually erupting around him.

Along with Monica, Liz is part of an inner circle of Garry's that also includes his manager Morris Dixon (John Stephen King) and his producer Henry Lyppiatt (David Boyll), both of whom soon also arrive. While this is a group of friends who readily share their views about what is best for Garry, the things the five do not share with the others are more interesting. Among them, there are secrets of their own and each other's adultery and intrigues of deceit.

But the room still has more space somewhere, and into it has already stumbled a clownish fellow named Rowland Moule. Much to his present consternation, Garry has agreed to give his opinion on a play the young man has scribed. Alex Draa wins the night's award for the funniest of all, with his Rowland nearly shaking loose each hand from its arm of any one he meets, with a body that moves in full speed across the room while leaning forward waist up as if he is about to fall any second, and with a set of exaggerated expressions and emotional outbursts that are then suddenly punctuated with moments of total and paralyzed quiet.

In later acts of this three-act, three-hour venture of silly shenanigans (with two ten-minute intermissions) we will meet the unabashedly pushy, highly erotic Joanna Lyppiatt, wife of Henry, who too has seemed to have lost her latchkey and knocks on Garry's door around midnight seeking help and refuge (wink, wink). Damaris Divito's Joanna is burning her candle at both ends as well as in the middle among this group of inner-circle buds, but her ultimate quest to attain Garry's bedroom favor is a tournament of wills where his melts the more hers heats up.

With all this coming and going, the adjoining rooms to this main parlor get a lot of use as rib-tickling situations mean it is time to hide this one and that one behind doors sometimes locked, sometimes guarded by loyal soldiers like Monica or even Liz. Just to mix things even more, a societal grande dame named Lady Saltburn (Barbara Heninger) arrives unexpectedly into an already full room, bringing her niece for a promised audition before the much flummoxed but necessarily polite Garry. When her niece turns out to be someone both he and we have already met, double meanings of the comments between her and Garry (not to mention her god-awful audition itself) become new sources for causing eruptions of our laughter.

The hilarity of wits and words occurs in a beautifully attired setting designed by Elizabeth Kruse Craig, with the apartment's walls full of the era's stage posters and photographs, and all its furnishings having an elegance and style of London's higher society. Costume designer Kathleen O'Brien brings the elegance of the late-thirties daytime and evening wear worthy of a full fashion show while also providing her own sources of humor with the outlandish outfits for such lovable misfits as Miss Erikson and Roland. As director, Walter M. Mayes ensures the eleven-member cast flow in and out of the several doors and hallways with comic speed and flair while also employing a host of clever touches to exploit the humor of the playwright's script into even more found hilarity.

One directorial choice, however, leaves each act's ending feeling like a let-down and causes a collective "huh?" among audience members—or at least that is the reaction I had and that I perceived in others around me. A final, frozen moment with a special effect created by lighting designer Meghan Souther in each act literally steals the spotlight from Noël Coward's closing line for that act. The reason to do so fully escaped at least me.

But the other 99.9% of the evening could hardly be any better directed, acted, or created in effects. With its Present Laughter, Pear Theatre gives to its loyal audience a season send-off that is, just like a good summer read at the beach, full of froth and fluff in all the right ways.

Present Laughter, through June 30, 2019, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, visit or call 650-254-1148.

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