(By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)
Austin Shakespeare’s production of Noël Coward’s classic comedy Present Laughter, playing through Dec. 4 at the Rollins Studio Theater in the Long Center, creates a comedic slow burn that is a perfect evening of escapism.
Like most of Coward’s work, Present Laughter is a combination of linguistic play, biting wit, and acidic-yet-likable characters, which combines to create a classic recipe for timeless comedy. In this case, Coward’s insightful eye turns towards the world of the theater itself, focusing on the escapades of famous and successful actor Garry Essendine, his team of creative co-conspirators, his personal staff, and his many lovers and admirers. Through Garry’s life, Coward explores what it means to “perform” in daily life, both to others and to ourselves, interrogating the ways in which we define and understand our own shifting identities.
Of course, accompanying the social commentary, there’s plenty of laughter along the way. Coward’s characters, though frequently politically incorrect by today’s standards and viciously droll to one another, are ultimately beacons of humanity, whose love and camaraderie pull them through conflict and passion. As such, a strong production of Coward relies upon a strong cast, and Austin Shakespeare has an ensemble that pulls it off.
Marc Pouhé is the perfect pick for Garry Essendine, using his own exuberant stage presence and mellifluous voice to embody the aging actor in a pitch-perfect portrayal that is equal parts send-up and loving embrace. The redoubtable Babs George, as his ex-wife (but eternal partner) Liz, serves as a bemused, cynical counterpoint to Pouhé, while Alison Stebbins, as his secretary Monica Reed, creates a more directly (but lovingly) antagonistic challenge to his vainglorious, womanizing ways. Stebbins, in particular, excels at digging into the more biting side of Coward’s wit, making Monica all the more likable as she does so.
Other highlights amongst the cast include Corinna Browning, as the increasingly unhinged ingénue Daphne Stillington; Kara Bliss, as Joanna Lyppiatt, the manipulative and cold-hearted wife of one of Garry’s friends; Steve Cruz, as Roland Maule, a young playwright whose obsession with Garry takes broad comedic strokes that give the production its most hilarious moments; and Toby Minor as Fred, Garry’s valet, whose small role is the most humane in the play, giving voice to a way of life outside of the manipulations of Coward’s upper-class protagonists.
Director Ann Ciccolella and her talented design team have put together a believable, naturalistic world in which these actors are able to romp. John Mayfield’s set, highlighted by Patrick W. Anthony’s lighting and Chaz Sanders props, creates an epic scope to Garry’s domicile that speaks to his wealth and power while at the same time hinting at some of his inherent tackiness. Benjamin Taylor Ridgway’s gorgeous costumes create the same lush sensibility, aided by wig designers Tara Cooper and Allison Lowery.
Present Laughter is a show that creates exactly what the title suggests—laughter. Its equal dose of warmth and cynicism, building up to farcical hysteria, are much needed in the present, and still have some pointed critiques to make about the destruction that comes when we allow ourselves to believe our own performances and the charismatic lies of other people.