BWW Review: PRESENT LAUGHTER a Clever Comedic Confection
PRESENT LAUGHTER is a 1939 comedy by Noël Coward. The play's title comes from a song in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, "present mirth hath present laughter", that urges the sense of carpe diem. Coward repeats one of his signature theatrical devices at the end of the play, where the main characters tiptoe out as the curtain falls - a device that he also used in Private Lives, Hay Fever and Blithe Spirit. The plot follows the life of self-obsessed actor Garry Essendine (Marc Pouhé) as he prepares for a theatrical tour in Africa. Amid a series of events that border on farce, Garry has to deal with women who want to be with him, placate both his secretary and his estranged wife, cope with a more than slightly crazed young playwright, and overcome an impending mid-life crisis. The story has been described by Coward as "a series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics".
Daphne Stillington (Corinna Browning), an admirer of actor Garry Essendine (Marc Pouhé), has finagled her way into his flat, spending the night there. While waiting for Garry to wake, she encounters multiple employees of Garry, Miss Erikson, the housekeeper (Janelle Buchanan); Fred, his valet (Toby Minor), and his secretary Monica Reed (Alison Stebbins). Daphne's presence is of no surprise to any of them. Strange women in the flat are a matter of course. Liz Essendine (Babs George), who left Garry years ago, remains part of his close knit cadre of friends, along with his manager, Morris Dixon (Michael Miller) and producer, Henry Lyppiatt (Robert Deike). While Liz is telling Garry that she suspects that Morris is having an affair with Henry's glamorous wife Joanna (Kara Bliss), their discussion is interrupted by the arrival of Roland Maule (Steve Cruz), an aspiring playwright whose play Garry has agreed to critique. With Daphne, Joanna and Roland all obsessively fixated on Garry, the stage is set for a series of manic encounters.
Staging Coward successfully takes a deft directorial hand and a cast that understands how to perform language plays. Austin Shakespeare's production of PRESENT LAUGHTER, now playing at the Long Center, blissfully has both in spades. Director Ann Ciccolella keeps this delicious comedic confection light and fast and the end result is a sparkling, witty entertainment. John Mayfield's scenic design is sumptuously elegant, providing a wonderful world in which Coward's witty creations cavort. Benjamin Taylor Ridgway's costumes are perfect, including such lovely touches as slippers that match the fabric of the characters pajamas. Technically, the only negative was the sound design of William Meadows which had unseen doors closing so impossibly loudly as to be distracting.
This cast handles the acidic wit of Coward with notable aplomb. At the center of this stylish and tasty bonbon are the sparkling performances of Marc Pouhé and Babs George. Their scenes together crackle with wit and impeccable timing. They have a clear chemistry together that allows them to land every snarky, witty insult with panache. The whole cast is absolutely wonderful in this production; however, there were a few that added that little extra that set them apart. Janelle Buchanan was delightfully droll as housekeeper Erikson, with the eternal burnt cigarette hanging from her mouth. Toby Minor's Fred was great fun, with Minor's signature physicality adding an extra dollop of charm to the character. Alison Stebbins gave a wonderful sassy girl Friday quality to the character of Monica. Steve Cruz imbued a wonderfully manic quality in Roland Maule that gave the innuendos of Coward an extra push to sublime comedic effect. Michael Miller has a terrifically funny drunk scene as Morris Dixon.
PRESENT LAUGHTER is a wonderful evening of classic Coward done right. I highly recommend it as a way to forget your troubles, have some great laughs and be grandly entertained.
PRESENT LAUGHTER by Noël Coward
Running time: Approximately Two Hour and 45 minutes including intermission
PRESENT LAUGHTER, produced by Austin Shakespeare, in the Rollins Studio at The Long Center (701 West Riverside Drive, Austin, TX 78704). November 16, 2016 - December 4, 2016. Wednesdays- Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
No performance on Thanksgiving "Student Informance" on Friday, December 2 at 11 a.m.
Tickets start at $18. To purchase tickets, visit thelongcenter.org/event/present-laughter or call The Long Center's 3M Box Office at (512) 474-LONG (5664), TTY (800) 735-2989.
Austin Shakespeare is offering middle and high school students a Present Laughter "Student Informance," an abbreviated production followed by a Q&A session, on Friday, December 2, 2016 at 11 a.m. To schedule space at the "Student Informance" or request more information, email email@example.com.