Being a heart-throb matinee idol is a tough job for anyone, and only the strongest survive the constant adoration of women, as actor Garry Essendine (Gary Powell) can attest in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, now playing at Lakewood Theatre through December 13.
The play opens with the very young Daphne Stillington (Brenan Dwyer), clad in a man’s pajamas, declaring her love for Essendine in his living room after what one presumes was a night of passion. Fred (John Morrison), Essendine’s “man” and Monica Reed (Marilyn Stacey), Essendine’s secretary, are not amused. They’ve been privy to these scenes before, and the women seem to be getting ever younger as the famous actor ages.
Then Essendine’s wife (Olivia Shimkus) comes onstage. While she no longer lives with her husband, she’s not amused either. She gets an eyeful of Daphne and starts in on the young women of the day “…all shambling about London by themselves without hats and making asses of themselves!”
Their collective lack of amusement notwithstanding, the audience gets it aplenty from the precise and entertaining dialog of Britain’s 1930s rendered by a master. There are parry and thrust, sexual innuendo, the much-anticipated trip to Africa, and a subplot or two in this farcical comedy of manners based, we are told, on Noel Coward’s life.
The play moves like clockwork. For plays of this sort, timing is essential or the humor is lost. And timing is perfect under Don Alder’s able directing. Powell, Morrison, Stacey, and Shimkus glide back and forth across the stage dropping verbal bombs right and left. Other characters wander through to discuss pressing theatrical matters. And the females continue to pursue poor old Essendine, who even though he is the butt of all the play’s jokes, manages to be at once clueless, arrogant, and self-centered, dapper, charming, and ever-so English.
Present Laughter (along with Blithe Spirit, which played last year at Artists Rep) is ranked as one of Coward’s most popular plays. It was written in 1939, when nobody in England had much to laugh about, and first staged in 1942 to entertain the troops during World War II. It hit the London stage in 1947 and has been revived many times since by the likes of Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole, to name a couple