“There’s something awful sad about happiness, isn’t there?” quips Garry Essendine (Michael Cumpsty), the perpetually flustered leading man of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. The contradiction captures the character’s and the play’s essence: it demands a great deal of energy to be so damn charming.
Two River Theater closes out an excellent season with this adroit production of Coward’s 1939 comedy about the theater, the harried life of a matinee idol, and the community of friends that such a life creates. It is a light and palate-cleansing finale to a season that was highlighted by Michael Sexton’s gritty Henry V, a powerful Topdog/Underdog, and a soulful Two Trains Running. It as if Coward himself looked over the season and suggested “enough heaviness: time for a little comedy!”
Set entirely in the lavish London flat (beautifully designed by Tony Straiges) of Garry Essendine, the commercial theater’s biggest star, the play follows the actor as he struggles to negotiate those oh-so-dreadful demands of popularity, sex appeal, and success. We first meet him through reputation as Daphne (Hayley Treider) slips out of his guestroom after a night of romance, giddy to find herself in the home of such a dashing and glamorous star. Garry is nowhere to be found as he sleeps off his night of partying, but Daphne is eventually greeted by Miss Erikson his maid (Camille Saviola), Monica his secretary (Veanne Cox), and Fred his butler (Richard Hollis).
None are at all surprised to find a strange young girl in the apartment. Garry’s sexual liaisons are routine.
The first scene encapsulates the play as a whole: in its comic ballet of Garry trying to dispose delicately of the fawning Daphne as Monica urges him to turn his attention to business matters we see how Garry will be at once the cause of tension as well as the arbiter of its release. We see also how he delights in that role.
Played excellently by Cumpsty with a puffed-up awareness of always being in the spotlight, Garry’s constant complaints about the demands life puts on him belie the ham’s insatiability for the spotlight. He may bemoan how his friends rely on him and he may object to their needs, but his very existence is sustained by being needed and desired.
Once Daphne is shooed away, the play’s comic plot reveling in the messy union of friendship and sex gets underway. Garry stands as “the great glorious sun” in the center of a tightly knit group of friends that includes his amiably estranged wife Liz (Kaitlin Hopkins), his business partners Hugo and Morris (Mark Capri and James Riordan), and his secretary Monica. They came together years ago in the interest of supporting and advancing Garry’s career, and a bond of friendship bordering on family has grown.
But then there’s Joanna (Leighton Bryan). Beautiful, alluring Joanna has married to Hugo but is messing around with Morris while her fancy is set ultimately on Garry. As we might expect, the sexy newcomer to the group manages to infect as she intrudes, and it is Garry—alas!—who must do his charming best to sooth tension that has arisen in no small part as a result of his own actions.
Like Oscar Wilde before him, Coward took great joy in lampooning the upperclass English, and he indulges himself fully in Present Laughter. But rather than a sardonic or contemptuous sendup, the play has an air of affectionate mocking of its characters. It is at least in part an autobiographical exploration of Coward’s own life in the theater, so we get a mockery colored with self-awareness. Coward was unafraid to laugh at himself and his friends, but he was sure to do so warmly.
Yet the highlight of Two River’s production is less Coward’s play than it is the show’s first rate cast, who throw themselves eagerly into Coward’s posh Londoners. High-class British accents overstuffed with cheeky dryness soar around the stage. Bryan’s Joanna is a particular delight when her back is against the wall and she flings tirades of self-righteous outrage in her own defense against the wagons circling around her. Cox’s Monica is just as enjoyable as a dry counterpoint, and certainly Cumpsty revels in the opportunity to ham Garry up to the extreme.
The evening’s most consistent laughs, however, come from the play’s most taciturn character, Miss Erikson the maid, played by Saviola with an unromantic gruffness that cuts perfectly through the play’s more regularly high-flown bombast. Her musical interlude is easily the production’s highpoint.
Coward’s wit and humor are on full display here as Two River signs off its season with a light hearted but loving and self-aware jab at the quirks of theater and its people.