Review: ‘Present Laughter’ at Theatre Rhinoceros

by Barry David Horwitz

John Fisher Camps It Up in 1939 Sex Farce

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter.
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty.
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.*

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

After all these years, Noel Coward’s popular comedy “Present Laughter” (1939) has come into its own as an upfront gay farce, centering around Garry Essendine (John Fisher), a witty comedy star, trying to maintain his sexual allure. Noel Coward, the British playwright of the mid-20th Century, played his wit and charm into a knighthood and worldwide fame, appearing often to sing and dance on American television, and making several of his plays into hit movies. In “Present Laughter,” Sir Noel’s hilarious caricature of himself, Essendine, is surrounded, indeed assaulted, by all manner of beautiful and sultry young folks — male and female — who constitute his admirers, fan club, entourage, and body servants. Essendine is a self-dramatizing stage star with a witty female secretary, a hovering ex-wife, a handsome male producer, a lovely male manager, a persistent hunky young playwright, and several hot young girlfriends. You wonder how he finds the time to act and get ready to go on tour in Africa. He wonders, too, as he wittily puts on, puts down, and puts himself at the center of every action. Maybe he is also Britain getting ready to go to war in the 30s?

This whirling dervish is played to perfection, with a decidedly gay and campy sensibility, by the always inventive Fisher, who also directs. Noel Coward, the playwright, who originally starred in the role and was doing a send-up of himself, had to play it pretty straight back in the 1930s, with just a wink and a nod to those “in the know.” So, here’s the question, boys and girls: Is this 30s/40s era British comedy best underplayed to highlight Noel Coward’s wit and the gay repression of his era, or is it better to up-date it, making it a wild sexual romp, as Fisher has done here?

Once the mad-cap star-struck young playwright Roland Maule (an eager, clever Marvin Peterle Rocha) breaks in to adore and pursue the semi-reluctant Essendine, the gay cat is out of the bag. Garry’s witty and worldly secretary/manager Monica Reed (a spot-on, supercilious, and smart Kathryn Wood) makes no bones about the sexual coming on of the hunky young Maule, who gets right into mauling our swishy hero.  Deliciously, Garry’s ex-wife Liz (the sneer-perfect Tina D’Elia) slyly and stylishly oversees many clashing affairs, doing her best to get folks in and out of their beds and bedrooms and on the road to the demanding African tour. Noel Coward toured this clash of classes and snobs all over the world in the 40s, entertaining the troops, at Winston Churchill’s request, no less. And we can be sure he played Garry to the hilt — to entertain the troops, of course.

The broad physical company and campy gay jokes leap up at every turn, with each character wittily expressing another part of the playwright’s character. All of the plays in this Art Deco world are decorative, suave, and self-serving, from the piano-playing butler Fred (a tuneful Ryan Engstrom) to Garry’s handsome buddies Henry Lippiatt (Carlos Barrera) and Henry’s wife’s lover Morris Dixon (Adam Simpson). We suspect that Essendine’s friends are all his ex-lovers — everyone here plays double-dealing and sexually adventurous roles. And they all have suggestive names, too.

“Present Laughter” shows us the pre-WWII period, when everyone was in the Depression and already going to war, but no one was ready to admit it. Garry still carries on in the old ways, and in this production, repression and secrecy are falling away, right in front of our eyes. The word is out. The closet is open. The privileged classes are having a gay old fling. Sex is coming out of every closet, clothes are flying, and dresses and dressing gowns come off as smooth as silk.

The delightful period costumes, the smart, pale green and yellow Art Deco set, the rich suits, dresses, and furnishings all evoke a between-the-wars period of wealth and self-indulgence for the stylish class.

Everyone works hard to keep the boss’s ship afloat as the farce is played in a contemporary and lascivious style. The English wit combined with French farce sometimes jars the period elegance. Fisher has updated Coward with brilliant comic delivery, which modernizes the piece, but sometimes clashes with its style.

The cleverness and the stellar timing of these exquisite folk, floating over their queenly anxieties, all depend on one flighty fastidious funny guy for their profitable pay-days. They are following a self-dramatizing leader, who can never be satisfied — not in any time. Noel Coward and John Fisher are reading the tea leaves of the future in “Present Laughter.”

“Present Laughter” plays at the Eureka Theater through June 18, 2016. For further information, click here

*Song of Feste the Fool from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Present Laughter” by Noel Coward. Produced by Theatre Rhinoceros. Director: John Fisher. Stage Manager: Haley Bertelsen. Scenic Designer: Gilbert Johnson. Costume Designer: David Draper. Lighting/Sound Designer: Sean Keehan. Dialect Coach: Treacy Corrigan.

Cast:

Henry Lyppiatt: Carlos Barrera. Liz Essendine: Tina D’Elia. Daphne Stillington: Adrienne Dolan. Fred: Ryan Engstrom. Joanna Lyppiat: Amanda Farbstein. Garry Essendine: John Fisher. Miss Erikson/Lady Saltburn: Adrienne Krug. Roland Maule: Marvin Peterle Rocha. Morris Dixon: Adam Simpson. Monica Reed: Kathryn Wood.

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One thought on “Review: ‘Present Laughter’ at Theatre Rhinoceros

  1. “So, here’s the question, boys and girls: Is this 30s/40s era British comedy best underplayed to highlight Noel Coward’s wit and the gay repression of his era, or is it better to up-date it, making it a wild sexual romp…[?]”

    Love this framing, excellent review!

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