Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2009
What is love, tis not hereafter, Present mirth, hath present laughter: What's to come, is still unsure. In delay there lies no plenty, Then come kiss me sweet and twenty: Youth’s a stuff will not endure
- William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act ii, scene iii
You have reached a moment in life when a little restraint would be becoming…You are no longer a debonair, irresponsible juvenile. You are an eminent man advancing, with every sign of reluctance, into middle age.
- Noël Coward, Present Laughter
Papers have headline about ‘Noël Coward Summonsed’, etc. Determined to rise above it. Obviously I can expect no mercy. My years of success must be paid for.
– Noël Coward, Diary October 23, 1941
Noël Coward designated his 1939 play Present Laughter “a light comedy in three acts” and it is very light indeed, like the proverbial soufflé which collapse in on itself at the slightest provocation. Luckily director Philip Kerr and his fine cast at Hubbard Hall keep the show buoyant enough skim merrily along the surface, never sinking to any depth of meaning or significance.
The play takes place in the London home of handsome matinee idol named Garry Essendine (Kevin McGuire) as he prepares to leave for a theatrical tour of Africa. Garry is plagued by his fame. His doorbell and telephone ring constantly and always the person on the other end of the line or behind the door wants and needs something. His secretary Monica Reed (Kathleen Carey) sorts through piles of urgent mail from people he can barely remember. His nearly ex-wife (they split up but neglected to divorce) Liz (Yvonne Perry) and his manager Morris (Doug Ryan) and producer Hugo (Tom Mattern) depend on him for their livelihoods. A demented young playwright Roland Maule (Jason Dolmetsch) is stalking him. And then there are the lovely young women who have forgotten their latchkeys – on the days in question 21-year-old groupie and actress wannabe Daphne Stillington (Tedra Max Millan) and Hugo’s new wife Joanna (Anastasia Satterthwaite).
All this is nothing new for Garry, in fact this has been his life for the past twenty years. He has recently turned 40 and no one is about to let him forget it.
Garry Essendine claims, and one believes him, that he is always acting. At Hubbard Hall Kerr and set designer Alley Morse have situated the playing area so that he literally lives on stage. The audience is seated in tiers on the floor in front of the balcony, and the playing space occupies the floor immediately in front of the stage and the stage itself. A double staircase connects the two levels, and an additional staircase on the stage leads up to Garry’s bedroom. So Garry’s private quarters, his entrances and exits, are all made under the ornate 1878 proscenium arch of the Hubbard Hall stage. Perfect!
I have heard rumors that McGuire is just the teensiest bit theatrical in his daily life, or, like Essendine, that he affects to be so for the amusement of others. He certainly knows how to be larger than life, and his booming voice, commanding presence, and radiant blond good-looks fill Hubbard Hall whenever he is on stage.
Millan, Perry, and Satterthwaite are drop-dead gorgeous ladies, and Sherry Nadzan Recinella has provided them with very flattering costumes. Perry is the real actress of the three, and her scenes with McGuire are warm and filled with the familiarity of a long-married couple. Millan has nothing to do but be young, idealistic and perky, and she does that well. Satterthwaite, who is dramatically thinner than I have seen her before, is so busy posing and looking beautiful that she forgets to be funny. I refer her to the front of the script where the words “light comedy” are clearly printed.
Carey is all spit and polish as Monica, but she gets the character just right. Unlike all the other female characters, Monica is not in love with Garry, never jealous, and completely secure in their relationship.
Ryan, who is a natural clown, struggles here in a dull, non-comedic role. It is not that he can’t play anything but comedy – his turn in the title role of The Elephant Man was outstanding – but that it is uncomfortable to see him in a funny play playing it straight. Mattern seems more comfortable playing a stuffy middle-aged businessman, but ultimately I forgot who was Morris and who was Hugo and what roles they played in Garry’s entourage. I had to Google to find out which one was his manager (Morris) and which his producer (Hugo.)
Garry also has two household servants – a valet, Fred (Benjie White) , and a kooky Swedish housekeeper, Mrs. Erickson (Pat Reilly). White was completely off his game on opening night, stepping on other people’s lines on more than one occasion, and Reilly looks hilarious with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth, but it makes her hard to hear and seriously impede her Swedish accent.
In the original production in 1942 the 40-something Coward played Garry Essendine and the play served as important propaganda to bolster Coward’s public image as a heterosexual man. I don’t know if anyone ever actually believed that he was straight, but in those days it was not nearly so important to act straight as it was to insist that you weren’t gay. No one was gay back then. Of course the great Noël Coward spent his evenings fending off the advances of attractive young things, er, women.
But the play is a love letter to a woman, and that woman was Lorn “Lornie” McNaughtan Loraine (1894-1967) who served as Coward’s private secretary from 1924 until her death. Coward doesn’t give Monica Reid any life outside of Garry Essendine’s studio, any purpose but to serve him. She is smart and steady and funny. She is easily the most likable character in the play.
Nineteenth century opera houses like Hubbard Hall were built with their performance space on the second floor for two reasons – one because there was money to be made from renting out the street-level retail space, and two because hot air rises. This second feature was a boon during the colder months, which definitely out number the warmer ones in Washington County, New York. But May and June can be warm, and it was very close in Hubbard Hall on opening night. At intermission I was about to fling open one of the fire escape doors to let some fresh air in when a moth flew past my nose and I remembered why that wasn’t possible. So be warned and dress lightly if you attend on a balmy night.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of Present Laughter runs through June 6 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members, and $15 for students. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009