Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Noel Coward's high-spirited "Present Laughter"
a comedy about an aging matinee idol, his friends, entourage, and various hangers
on. Coward wrote it as a tour de force for himself at age 39, so it's somewhat
autobiographical. In the England of the first half of the 20th century, homosexuality
was illegal, and Coward, like many other leading English artists of the time,
took some pains to conceal it. Despite being a workaholic who drank little,
and being completely indifferent to women, he cultivated a public image of a
drunken womanizer who slept until noon, lounged around in pajamas and a bathrobe
until dinner time, and caroused all night. This is the character of Garry Essendine
play takes place in Garry's parlor. It's very elegant, befitting a leading English
actor of the 1930's with a small staircase at the back and his room at the top.
The office is off to the right, the guest room to the left, the front door left
and the Domestics to the center rear. The Domestics are a motley crew, efficientbut
odd. Miss Ericson mumbles, always with a cigarette butt hanging out of her mouth.
Fred avoids making waves and goes about his business, the secretary, Monica
makes as many waves as necessary.
opens with Daphne, a leggy twenty-one year old blonde waking up and coming into
the parlor, stretching out on the sofa, and waiting for someone to serve her
breakfast. When Garry finally stumbles
out of bed, she throws herself at him. He wants to be done with her, but she
clings. He's getting ready to leave for Africa, she's in love, or lust. He says,
"Everybody worships me, it's nauseating." Garry is completely superficial
and vain. When he steps out of his room, he flips back the closest picture on
the wall, and it's a mirror in which he brushes back his hair. Liz comes in.
She's his former wife, and has a gift for him. She tells Monica it's a dressing
gown. Monica says that he already has eighteen of them, and sure enough, he
loves this one. When Daphne comes out to call a cab, Liz sends her down to her
Multiple characters enter and exit rather quickly from here. It's easy enough for the audience to keep them separate, but if the actors could, well, that's the whole point of this reasonably pointless, but completely entertaining play. Most of the time there are too many actors on stage for them to keep separate, and it turns into a delightful farce with characters being shuffled off to the guest room, office, or wherever. The door bell rings repeatedly. When it's answered Roland Maule enters. He's a young playwright who shows Garry his play. Garry doesn't like it, and he replies that, "I know you like to play rather trashy parts, as a rule. I thought you might like to play something deeper." Garry tells him to sit down and write twenty plays, and if the twenty-first gets produced on a Sunday night, he'll be damned lucky.
and Henry are friends and investors. Morris is a theatrical producer. Henry
is married to Joanna, and Morris is having an affair with her. It's evening,
and Garry is home alone playing the piano. Fred comes in doing a soft-shoe.
He's dressed to the nines and going to meet his honey. He doesn't see any need
toget married, and doesn't want to because they have plenty of fun like that,
thank-you. After he leaves the door bell rings, and Garry answers it. He has
a mirror behind a cupboard door near the front door, and brushes back his hair
before he answers it. This is one of his mannerisms that becomes increasingly
ridiculous as the play progresses. It's Joanna and she's on the prowl. They
go back and forth a bit before they embrace madly to Beethoven's Fifth. In the
morning the help are shocked to see her there. She and Monica don't like each
anyway, and they go back and forth. Liz comes in and Joanna fences with everyone.
Morris has told Liz about his affair with Joanna, and she's going to blackmail her to stay away from Garry. Maule shows up and things start to get out of hand. Garry tries to sneak out and runs into Morris. Joanna is hiding in the guest room. When Henry enters Liz comments that she feels like she's in a French farce. The pace has gotten quite fast, and Maule is standing up in front of Garry's room writing it all down. Lady Saltburn is next to come in. Her niece has been promised a reading for Garry by Monica, because she's a patroness. She's dressed in this ridiculous big fur with a couple legs hanging off it. The niece is none other than Daphne, who eventually faints.
the final act Garry and Monica are reading fan mail. They're all packed and
ready to leave for Africa. He tells her that she goes churning through life
like some frightening old warship, then asks, "Have any of us got what
we want?" Daphne comes in, ticket in hand, and says she's going to Africa
with Garry. The bell rings and Garry brushes his hair back and answers. It's
Maule. He's coming too. Then it's Joanna. She's got the bridal suite. It was
the only one left. Then Liz. Next Henry and Morris to confront Garry about Joanna,
Henry having his own affair. Everybody's after everybody else as Liz and Garry
get back together in the rollicking conclusion.
"Present Laughter" is a wonderful romp about growing old gracefully, and it's a whole lot of fun. It continues at The Angus Bowmer Theatre at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland through November 1.
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