Present Laughter's mix of style and vulgarity works
Belgians and Greeks do it,
Nice young men who sell antiques do it
Let's do it. Let's fall in love.
The Brontes felt that they must do it,
Ernest Hemingway could just do it
Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.
Tennessee Williams, self taught, does it,
Kinsey with a deafening report does it.
Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.
In Texas, some of the men do it,
Others drill a hole and then do it.
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
— excerpt from Noel Coward's version of Cole Porter's song
You obviously can't cast Noel Coward himself as the protagonist in Present Laughter, though he did write the play in the spirit of self-parody — and not remotely rueful or remorseful self-parody, at that. Nor, if you're in Colorado, can you find actors with the plummy English accents his dialogue requires. So you might as well make the evening your own, and tart it up with all kinds of absurd and anachronistic tricks. "Noel Coward would be rolling in his grave," murmured director Richard H. Pegg self-deprecatingly as he exited the Miners Alley theater on opening night. But I'm not so sure. The results are actually bright, smart and entertaining.
At the center of Present Laughter is Gary Essendine, a famous and self-adoring actor who, despite acting like a petulant child most of the time, is actually a master manipulator. His entourage and theater family consist of a devoted secretary, Monica; his valet, Fred; a Scandinavian (here Russian) maid, Miss Erikson; and his agent and producer, Hugo and Morris. Orchestrating almost every act of his life is his level-headed ex-wife, Liz, who's still determined to take care of him even though they no longer have the slightest sexual interest in each other. Coward was gay, of course, and many critics wonder how this play might have turned out if he could have gotten away with a gay protagonist in 1939. Gary's a tomcat, and on the eve of an African tour, he has to deal with a couple of seductive women wandering around his apartment in silk pajamas — one of them a starstruck ingenue called Daphne, the other Joanna, who's Hugo's wife and Morris's mistress. There's also a demented young playwright who lectures him on the frivolity of his work in theater. The indignant response is clearly Coward's justification for his own brilliantly frivolous output.
Pegg sets the action in the 1980s, and doesn't particularly trouble himself about the contradictions this causes. Monica is pregnant, and there's an insinuation that the baby might be Gary's. This is a bit distracting. First of all, Gary doesn't seem quite capable of it, and secondly, this complication would surely be reflected in the dialogue. But it does add some humorous business, and an extra layer of meaning to Gary's "Should you?" when she pours herself a drink. The play's language remains Coward's (for the most part!), and the lifestyle and theater scene it portrays is pure early twentieth century. But predatory Joanna rises from the murk of America's Deep South, and the interpolated last scene simply rips apart the genteel fabric.
The set feels relatively timeless, unobtrusively elegant with no ornamental gewgaws, and Ann Piano's costumes are a key element. Some, like Daphne's pouffy skirt, are irresistibly reminiscent of Adena's outrageous outfits in Absolutely Fabulous. But you also get Cowardian silk pajamas and a dressing gown, while Liz and Joanna wear simply gorgeous, if flashy, dresses in black and silver. Among other witty details, there's between-scene music: some contemporary stuff, a snatch of Coward himself, Eartha Kitt singing Porter's "Let's Fall in Love," and a verse from Jerome Kern's "Life Upon the Wicked Stage": "Wild old men who give you jewels and sables only live in Aesop's fables."
Chris Bleau doesn't carry the kind of nerveless but absolute authority we'd expect of Essendine, and he looks far too boyish to be forty (approaching middle age is one of Gary's bugaboos), but he still plays the role with cheeky charm. Haley Johnson brings a grounding warmth to Monica, though her accent veers all over the place. Adrian Egolf is a cheerily impermeable Liz. Kelly Reeves and Christian Mast play Daphne and the crazed playwright Roland Maule, respectively, and they do it very broadly, though Daphne does remain recognizably human and Maule is pure caricature. Still, he executes all his tics and tricks cleanly, which makes the portrayal effective. Rachel Bouchard's smoothly arrogant Joanna is a pleasure to watch — and, boy, can the lady wear a dress with grace.
In the end, the mix of style and vulgarity works — both because it's so carefully orchestrated and because Pegg understands exactly when he's paying homage to a venerable tradition and when he's crazily and flat-footedly upending it.
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