8/11/2023 NOEL COWARD’S PRESENT LAUGHTER Pumphouse Players
(Bias Alert: I have worked with Pumphouse Players and am friends with certain members of this cast, so I am inclined to be gentle with my quips and friendly with my banter. That being said …)
The plays of Noel Coward are light as air, delicate as lace, funny as English syntax. To do them without comfort in his style, his language, his period is to do a disservice to his world and to his many devotees, of whose numbers I feel fortunate to count myself. (For the record, I played a Noel Coward analog in Song at Twilight, his final (and semi-autobiographical) play, an 80-something character – I was 26 at the time -- and it was in Harrisburg PA when the Three-Mile Island accident was happening all around us. But I digress….)
My friends at Pumphouse Players have staged Coward’s Present Laughter with no apparent inkling as to his style or period. Yet they have still managed to entertain and delight their opening night audience and will probably continue to do so through this weekend. It is a credit to this cast, and to Coward’s writing in general. And (I hope) I am not the sort of cranky curmudgeon to call anyone’s enjoyment “wrong.” A wise friend recently told me that “if you can’t praise the production, praise the effort.” So this cast and crew have displayed an impressive effort, making a three-hour play zip by as if on the wings of angels, and kept even this cranky curmudgeon occasionally laughing, often smiling. Coward can be challenging to even the most seasoned of casts, and any non-professional company staging it has a monumental task to even semi-satisfy us loathsome Coward-ites.
Welcome to the London flat of theatre superstar Garry Essendine, circa just before World War II . He is preparing for a "Grand Tour" of six plays through Africa. In the Grand Tradition of French Farce, all he wants is a little "Down Time," some quiet time
to recharge his batteries. But he is incapable of NOT being the Center of Attention, of NOT being the over-reacting over-actor basking in the adoration of everyone in his orbit. Faster than you can say "It's exposition, it has to go somewhere," he has a star-struck ingénue, a young (infatuated) playwright, his manager, his producer, and the seductive wife of one or the other (it's hard to keep their "roles" straight, especially since she’s having an affair with the one NOT her husband) scurrying after him and demanding their pound of affection, forcing their "secrets" onto his overburdened self-obsession. His embattled secretary Miranda tries to keep some semblance of control, and his ex-wife Liz offers a few welcome breaths of sanity. But, over the course of three acts, things go from frenetic to frazzled to worse, and, like many Coward comedies, concludes with some folks just tip-toeing away from all the madness.
Like many Coward plays, this one positively oozes autobiographical "Easter Eggs", and much has been written about which female character "represents" which actual male from Coward's real life (**). Of course, he wrote the play for himself to act in -- "Present Laughter is a very light comedy and was written with the sensible object of providing me with a bravura part" -- and, although it was finished in 1939, it wasn't first produced until 1942 -- the war, you know. It has had numerous American productions and revivals, giving actors as diverse as Clifton Webb, George C, Scott, Frank Langella, and Victor Garber the opportunity to wallow is this plum role. Kevin Kline won 2017’s Tony Award for his performance, which, based on the video available on BroadwayHD, proved him to be total delight from beginning to end.
So, where to begin with the Pumphouse production? Let’s start with the set, a two-level affair that gives clear sight-lines, allows multiple levels, and makes no architectural sense whatsoever (a bedroom door opening up into a space established as a hallway to an office is the most egregious distraction. Elegant furniture is sparsely scattered (a good choice), but there is a dearth of tables, requiring valet Fred to serve drinks and breakfast on the couch (I can feel a thousand WWII-era valets rolling in their graves).
Then there’re the costumes. Sure, the ladies are dressed in the most beautiful of gowns and period togs, but the men --- well, most of their costumes are ill-fitting and display (almost to a man) a “just slept in” rumpleness. Back to Valet Fred – to serve a demanding diva like Garry Essendine in a 21st Century hairstyle and an unbuttoned and hastily cobbled together frock is just – well, wrong. Garry Essendine himself is seen here minus a tie or ascot, accessories de rigeur for any Coward hero – even when in pajamas and dressing gown he should sport that signature neatly pinned ascot. Coward’s script calls for him to have “mussed hair” for his initial entrance – not look like he slept in his evening clothes.
Somehow, when the cast looks this wrinkled and sloppy, the tidy dialogue and arch wit has a tendency to fall a little flat. Well, a LOT flat. I understand the constraints of low-budget theatre (believe me!), but these struck me as more a lapse in vision and design rather than as a lapse in available funds.
But we’re here to see people, not clothes, right? Most succeed (often) with their British accents, but some swallow their words a little too often and a little too deeply to be fully understood. But there are some very excellent performances on view here. I was especially impressed by Kitt Marsh’s Monica, Garry’s long-suffering secretary. She controls the room every time she’s on stage and is totally convincing as a long-time employee who tolerates (is even amused by) the excesses of her employer’s eccentric behavior. I also liked Karen Ruetz’s “Scandinavian Maid” Miss Erikson, who evokes laughter every time she shuffles on, unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth. That Ms. Ruetz does a full character turnabout to play the upper crust Lady Saltburn (and don’t you just LOVE that name?) without echoing her other character shows a skill with character, posture, and voice that are enviable. There was also some very good work from Kirby Green’s eccentric Mr. Maule and Stacey Bern’s seductive Joanna. Everybody else had many nice moments (and for once I was able to distinguish between Garry’s producer and publicist), but everybody also occasionally lagged with their pickups and slowed the pace just when it needed to be kicking into high gear. This is an issue I presume (knowing many of these people) will disappear as the run continues and they get more comfortable with the lines.
As to Joel Rose as Garry Essendine, he is a bit miscast, being too old to pass for “trying to pass for 40” and physically not my idea of a Stage Idol of the era. But he does have a way with the dialogue – and he has A LOT of dialogue – that is positively infectious and impressive. He avoids the common “bad choice” of trying to force laughs with lame business and mugging. He is totally in each and every scene and lets the words do their work – float and pierce. Yes, some of the barbs miss, but I was confident Mr. Rose would pick up the pieces and land his next bon mot.
This is a long play, but not uncomfortably so. It is from an era when a trip to the theatre was an all-evening experience, when plays had three acts (and two intervals), and when characters were written to ease their way into our company. Pumphouse has (thankfully) not artificially squeezed this into a two-act structure (which is often done since Act II has two scenes), and I was actually surprised when I saw how much time had passed by the end. Still, this is Coward, and is filled to the brim with sharp characterizations, compellingly funny verbal brawls, and a satisfying (if predictable) "let's walk away from it all" conclusion, and I daresay, future audiences will be just as enthusiastic as opening night’s cast-friendly crowd.
Please bear in mind that my quibbles and criticisms are a result of my own admittedly biased mind, and this production would be a marvelous introduction to those with no idea of who Noel Coward was or the world(s) he created in his impressive body of work. For those of us who have had perhaps too many visits to that elegant world, it was an impressive effort that did not (overly) disappoint.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #PumphousePlayers #NoelCoward #PresentLaughter)
** My 1979 experience in Song at Twilight is an interesting gender-role story. I was one of the few “straight” actors in that particular rep company, and Song at Twilight is all about the Coward-esque character, during the final years of his life coming to terms with his own homosexuality. My director told me I was cast because “it wouldn’t be stretch for anyone else” (he was all about pushing us out of our comfort zones) – we were ALL in out 20’s and this was a character in his 80’s! Not a stretch my virginal butt! Out Front or Actor’s Express – do you really NOT want to do this play?