Monday, April 11, 2011

Present Laughter has Solid Laughs

by Andrew Juhl

Coralville - Noël Coward’s semi-autobiographical sub-farce Present Laughter is a tricky piece. One of the great things about all-out farces and jokey-joke comedies is that even novice casts can stage them and get an adequate number of laughs from the audience. Present Laughter requires a defter, more subtle delivery from all its players in order to achieve the same level of applause.

There were definitely some good performances on opening night, but unfortunately the show overall fell somewhat short of its potential.

The plot follows a few days in the life of the successful and self-obsessed light comedy actor Garry Essendine as he prepares to travel for a touring commitment in Africa. He finds himself dealing with women who want to seduce him, placating both his long-suffering secretary and his estranged wife, being stalked by a crazed young playwright, and working through his own obsession with oncoming middle age.

David Q. Combs, starring as “Garry Essendine” (a role written by Coward unabashedly for Coward), turns in the best-understood performance of the ensemble—which is to be expected, as he is the lone professional actor in the cast.

His competence in the role, however, does not make the character of Essendine any more likable. For that, the whole of the supporting cast would have needed to better understand and portray their character’s connections and pasts. Essendine is a narcissistic and self-righteous jackass, surrounded alternatingly by obnoxious sycophants, malcontented employees, and friends who can barely stand him—none of whom are any more likable than Essendine, to be frank. Cheating wives, lying ingénues, and deceitful young playwrights do not a caring audience member make without the actors giving those characters some dimension. If I don’t like or care about the characters, then it doesn’t matter how good the words on the page are; those witty retorts won’t elicit the reaction “good one!” so much as they’ll provoke the response “what a bunch of horrible asses.”

That’s not to say there’s nothing redeemable about the show. Beyond Combs, who delivers his character’s more powerful scenes with aplomb, there are other cast members who deserve special note. Adam Burton (“Roland Maule”) steals his scenes with bushy-tailed enthusiasm, and Doreen Loring (“Liz Essendine”) says her lines with a calm, steely detachment that sets her apart from everyone else on stage as someone not to be trifled with. I enjoyed Jessica Murillo’s (“Joanna Lyppiatt”) performance, without particularly enjoying anything she did or said. Paradoxical, I know. But go see it and you might agree with me.

Director Rachel Lindhart makes good use of the small stage in the Children’s Museum, and moves the character’s around constantly, keeping the action and the dialogue from getting sleepy. The set is also well-designed to make good use of such a small space, containing several entrances and exits without being cluttered. (Self-aware pretentious note to the prop masters, though: nobody who keeps their sherry and scotch in stoppered crystal at a bar station displays a bottle Johnny Walker Black Label alongside a bottle of Passport Scotch. That’s like hanging a Thomas Kinkade print right next to your authentic Edward Hopper.)

I can’t like every play I see, but I can find things I like about every play I see. There were more than a handful of solid laughs, as well as some truly good performances within the cast. This is the last show in City Circle’s current season, and will be their last show in the Children’s Museum space, so consider attending Present Laughter to help support City Circle as they move into their next season and their new home.

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