Present Laughter by Noel Coward directed by Chase deKay Wilson at Kirkland House JCR April 29, 30, May 1
IN 1924, writing for the London Sunday Times, James Agate commented that Noel Coward, "whether as dramatist or composer, has worked invariably for the passing moment, for the present laughter rather than the applause of posterity...Whatever he does, the effect is theatrical, greasepainted." These lines serve as an appropriate epigraph for Coward's life and work, and also for Kirkland House Drama Society's finely acted and tightly directed production of Coward's comedy Present Laughter.
Present Laughter is a light drawing room comedy, very proper and very British, much in the tradition of Oscar Wilde. As in the majority of Coward's plays, the plot is thin and somewhat contrived. The action transpires in the studio of star actor Garry Essendine, revolving around the amorous antics of the forty-ish stage idol and his claque of friends and admirers.
It seems that Mr. Essendine frequently plays host to young women who have "lost their latchkeys" and are more than willing to lose their maidenhood too. Garry's activities are a constant source of bemusement for his poised, careerminded wife Liz (from whom he is amicably separated), and his acerbic but tolerant secretary Monica. They treat him as a hopeless child who needs frequent scolding, and many of their best lines are directed at him.
Garry's relationships inevitably lead him into trouble. He becomes entangled in a menage-a-quatre involving his agents Hugo and Morris and Hugo's wife Joanna. The problem is that Morris loves Joanna while Joanna no longer cares for Hugo but has eyes for Garry. This threatening catch in a series of casual liaisons drives Garry back to the security of his wife Liz.
Garry is a prancing, strutting peacock of a man who rarely stops acting--even when he is off the stage. He is the center of much attention and his excesses are obligingly tolerated and forgiven. He is everybody's favorite but in the context of the play it is difficult to figure out why this is so. Admittedly he has a childlike vulnerability that makes him attractive but there is nothing really admirable in his character. He is spoiled and self-centered. There are hints that beneath the pretentious veneer hides a warm and sympathetic man. But these remain only hints.
Garry is more or less a one-dimensional character. He is forever shown as the actor clinging to artifice. Noel Coward wrote the part with little concern for full-bodied characterization. His concern was rather to facilitate virtuoso dramatic performances.
Present Laughteris designed simply to entertain. Coward spoofs the "theater of ideas" advocated by Ibsen and Chekov in the character of Roland Maule, a young cuckoo-headed would-be playwright. Maule, a caricature of the "serious" dramatist, spouts streams of cliched arguments about "commercial theater," "intellectual significance,"and of course "posterity." Ironically Maule adores and admires Garry, who personified frivolous commercial theater.
Coward wrote not for posterity but to create transitory excitement and comedy on the stage. He gave his characters humorous and theatrical lines which are meant to be played, heard, and enjoyed, but not puzzled over.
THE PRODUCTION'S CAST is generally excellent. Emily Altman as Monica, and Jenny Marre as Liz are outstanding, delivering their lines with precise comic timing. Altman skillfully portrays the long-suffering secretary who manages Garry's business affairs while Marre captures the combination of grace, warmth, and level-headedness that makes Liz a perfect complement to Garry's irresponsibility. Philip Kraft turns in a hilarious character bit as Roland Maule, affecting nervous and eccentric mannerisms that convincingly delineate his madness. But Susan Schwartz is miscast as the seductive and elegantly attractive Joanna; she is just too abrasive and overtly aggressive. Joanna's seduction of Garry in the second act becomes an attack by a brazen beast.
The part of Garry is a vehicle for a captivating actor to play up to the audience. Coward himself played the part--which he claimed as his "favorite"--when the play opened in England in 1942. Alden Wentworth Watson fills the role well enough, though his characterization is somewhat lacking in variation and nuance.
Director Chase deKay Wilson has preserved the sense of entertaining for the moment in her production of Present Laughter. The mood of the play is kept light and dialogue tumbles along at a brisk pace. As a result the play is never tedious despite its length (three full acts).
The technical design by John Carson innovatively surmounts the limitations of the Kirkland House Junior Common Room. He has fashioned a sort of theater-in-the-middle with the stage, which has been designed to blend in with JCR decor, located in the center of the room and audience situated on either side.
Present Laughter is especially interesting as a period piece, for it represents a style of comedy that is no longer written for the stage. Noel Coward was a member of the British aristocratic leisure class and his characters were reflections of his own lifestyle. These days the stock medium for these characters is satire. Their frivolous preoccupation with style and good form seems merely ludicrous. They are difficult to identify with so it now seems more appropriate to laugh at them rather than with them. But despite these changes in attitude, Present Laughter is still an effective comedy because Coward created his characters with performance in mind. His parts provide a rare opportunity for actors to mug and posture shamelessly.
Noel Coward is a legendary figure in the annals of theatrical history. In this most fickle of professions, he could do it all. He wrote plays and musicals, and he acted in them. He proceeded in all his endeavors with the conviction that above all theater should be entertaining. At one point in Present Laughter Garry says to one of his amours, "You're in love with an illusion, the illusion that I gave you when you saw me on stage." For Noel Coward, the business of theater was to create that kind of illusion. The Kirkland House Drama Society's production of Present Laughter epitomizes Noel Coward's illusion. It is theater that amuses, entertains, and lifts the spirit, but doesn't weigh heavily on the mind. It is a welcome respite from the serious ideas and problems of everyday life.