nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
January 28, 2010
Sumptuous sets, lavish costumes, witty dialogue, and superb talent make for an easy sell, to say nothing of an enjoyable evening. Noel Coward's plays tend to bring out the best, and Present Laughter, the hilarious drawing room farce produced by Roundabout Theatre Company, is a treat to behold.
The curtain rises on Alexander Dodge's luxurious deco set, one that causes a slight intake of breath. This is the London flat of Garry Essendine, an aging matinee idol, and the flat has enough indulgences to reflect his egomania and to occupy the eye through all three acts. The exaggerated, bold geometrics of the wallpaper and the enormous crystal chandelier might easily accommodate the spacious lobby of a five-star hotel. But the lustrous banister leading to the second floor and snifters and decanters, a full-length portrait of Essendine, and other personal touches clearly define the room as one belonging to a person who enjoys flaunting his wealth and just about everything else. This is the Essendine world of the late 1930s and this living room, with its five entrances and egresses, is where everyone congregates (and some hide), because everyone is in love with Garry Essendine—including the man himself. The audience is given a moment to digest this glorious room before the parade begins. First comes a pretty young thing named Daphne, who throws herself at Essendine's feet; next, the decrepit old housekeeper, the butler, and the secretary, all hardened and prepared for another day of hysteria and chaos; Essendine's estranged wife, Liz, appears; an adoring playwright, Roland, seeks affirmation of his work and simply wants to touch the man; there are Essendine's adulterous producer, a long-time friend and his two-timing wife, and finally Lady Saltburn, Daphne's regal aunt. All lend a generous hand to the gossip, privilege, and delicious repartee of the play.
The plot is thinly wound around Essendine's forthcoming trip to Africa, the people who all want a little piece of Essendine, and plenty of cocktails. But, mostly, the success of the play rests on the crisp, catty dialog of Coward's play and the polished direction provided by Nicholas Martin. Martin manages to give each of the 11 characters a distinct personality and rhythm. While Act I feels a little slow, it provides the set up for what follows, which is well worth the wait.
The cast is marvelous. Victor Garber is deliciously self-involved as Garry Essendine and his timing is impeccable. He raves, "My life is one big torment," knowing as he says it that he is the luckiest man in the world and that the joy is in delivering the line. Brooks Ashmanskas is nothing short of hilarious as the idiosyncratic playwright, Roland, so out of place in the Essendine living room. His character resembles something like Tweedledum, but, unexpectedly, he slides and prances around the stage with the nimbleness of a ballet dancer and his particular choice of gestures never fails to elicit laughs. Nancy E. Carroll, too, is hysterical as the ancient German maid, Miss Erikson, particularly in her first entrance in Act I, when we least expect her. As the no-nonsense secretary, Monica, who has witnessed more than one tantrum during 17 years of service, Harriet Harris, whittles her boss down to size with finesse any time she has the opportunity. Lisa Banes plays Liz, the no longer long-suffering wife of Essendine. She plants a question as to why she is in her estranged husband's flat. As Liz, Banes watches the cast of characters come and go, and bides her time. She is cool, smart, and patient. The whole cast adds texture as they swirl around their idol. They include: Holley Fain as the ingenue, Daphne; James Joseph O'Neil as Fred, the butler; Marc Vietor as Morris, the producer; Richard Poe as Henry Lyppiatt, an old friend; Joanna, Lyppiatt's faithless wife; and Alice Duffy as Lady Saltburn.
Jane Greenwood's costumes are fabulous, as always. This was a period when people dressed for dinner—and during the day, too, for that matter. There are shoes that reflect the planned trip to Africa and flamboyant hats that I wish would come back today. One flowing gown is bold in its simple brown stripes and coordinates intriguingly with the deco wallpaper. And then there's the little brown jacket with the red piping...
Rui Rita's lighting and Drew Levy's sound add to the rich ambiance.
Present Laughter is a treat for the senses. It transports us to what seems like a safe and better place—a womb where nothing but nourishment reaches the soul.