Resting quite unassumingly against the music stand of a piano, neatly tucked against the wall of Sandy Lawrence’s richly appointed set for Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s production of Present Laughter , is a copy of The Noel Coward Songbook.
The piano sits under a comically garish photo, seemingly too big for the room, of the play’s protagonist, actor Garry Essendine, with whom the entire world seems to be in love. The portrait looms over the action like the larger than life Coward himself, who admitted the character he penned was at least partly autobiographical and who played Essendine himself in the original London production.
Indeed, Essendine, played here by Marc Dyer, is imbued with many of Coward’s better known traits, including an innate theatricality, deep generosity towards his friends and associates, a fondness for romantic dalliances, and a comical penchant for a good dressing gown.
Luckily for the audience Coward’s entire script is imbued with the sharp wit and joyfully vivid characterizations that one expects from the man sometimes referred to as “The Master.” In the case of Present Laughter, the wit brings comedy, often achieved at the expense of the protagonist, serving as a counterpoint to a life that by turns feels recklessly carefree and desperately lonely.
The show opens with a star struck Daphne Stillington, played with wonderful exuberance and determination by Madeliene Dilley, prancing about Garry’s home in his pajamas and robe, having spent the night after “losing” her latchkey. It is quickly obvious that she is not the first forgetful young woman Mr. Essendine has rescued from such circumstances, when neither the housekeeper (Karen Buchheim), the valet (Andrew Willis), nor Essendine’s long suffering secretary, Monica Reed (Elena Johnson), treat the girl with anything other than passing annoyance.
Ms. Stillington balks only slightly when she comes face to face with Mrs. Liz Essendine (Judy Burke), Garry’s not quite ex-wife who, along with the rest of Garry’s inner circle- the aforementioned Monica, producer Henry Lyppiatt (Tom Coffey) and manager Morris Dixon (Ted Kaufman) keep the actor’s reputation and career afloat, most recently by booking him a tour through Africa.
Besides Ms. Stillington, Essendine is also set upon by his own mid-life crisis, meddling aunt (Regina Toeatto), and a young playwright, Roland Maule (Christian Mitchell), who is so awkward and disconcerting as to make the entire house cringe. But these are trivial concerns compared to the news Liz imparts that Henry’s new bride, Joanna (Beth Buchanan), may have designs on Morris. Such an affair could upset the entire balance of their working relationships, having the potential to cause no small amount of harm to Garry’s career and, consequently, all of their livelihoods.
What follows is a tightly scripted and refined farce that keeps the audience laughing, and at times perhaps wincing, depending on your sensibility, at the absurdity and audacity of a cast of increasingly self-serving and manipulative characters who have an extremely casual relationships with each other and with the truth.
Director Kay Burcher should be commended for a very cohesive production, each element feels appropriate and supportive of the action, and for excellent ensemble casting as well. All of the actors approached their characters and language with aplomb, though at times the pacing seemed a bit slow. While the actors hit the humor well, with a few exceptions, the deeper underlying emotion between the characters did at times seem lacking, which even in a farce like this is necessary for the audience to invest in the characters and action.
All three actors playing “the employees”, Willis, Buchheim, and Johnson, have wonderful comedic timing, and Buchheim in particular has a real audience pleasing moment towards the end of the show.
Johnson also had some stand out moments as the sardonic secretary, far too familiar with her employer’s antics to be truly bothered by them. There is a moment in Act II when Monica takes her leave of Garry where it would have been nice to see some true friendly affection between the two to help lend weight to the action that at times felt lacking.
Christian Mitchell, as the overly effusive Mr. Maule, commands attention with his stilted physicality and almost maniacal laugh. As written, this rabid fan is yet another fawning admirer, in love with a man he doesn’t really know, though Mitchell’s portrayal strayed past funny into something more sinister feeling at times.
Marc Dyer’s Garry Essendine came across as witty but unaffected. As Dyer carries the majority of the show, this lack of emotion made the entire evening feel a bit flat. For a character that is constantly told he overacts, more emotion could have helped bolster the arc of Essendine’s midlife crisis and the audiences’ engagement, especially when playing opposite Mitchell or when navigating the increasingly complex relationships that begin to unfold. Worth noting is that on the night this reviewer saw the show, Mr. Dyer had more than a handful of delayed or misspoken lines, which may have had an impact on the overall effectiveness of his performance, but which I am sure will work themselves out with a few more runs under his belt.
Both Tom Coffey and Ted Kaufman delivered solid performances, especially for characters who don’t have a lot to work with contextually in the beginning. This quickly rights itself, especially as they begin to have to come to terms with the deception they have sewn around their relationships with Henry’s wife Joanna. In Buchanan’s hands, Joanna is equal parts seductive and manipulative, sprinkling in just enough sadness to really make the audience like her – until they don’t.
Judy Burke is exceptional as Liz Essendine, the not quite ex-wife, who sees Garry for who he is and keeps her heart just guarded enough to support his career while navigating the torrent of his affairs with striking civility. Burke’s character was impeccable. Every line and every action from this actress supports her character beautifully. Burke inhabits her characters wholly and she is as fun to watch when she is reacting to the action around her as she is when she is delivering a withering reprimand with an affable smile. I was a huge fan of her turn as Betty Meeks in The Foreigner last season, and her work here is just as successful.
As mentioned the set was well designed and executed, though there were a few trim pieces on the crown molding the seemed off, which only bears mentioning because they stood out so much on what was a wonderfully realized set.
Lighting by Mike Hilton was effective, as was the sound design by Matt Smith and Jeff Seneca. The music choices were particularly enjoyable. Costumes were tackled by the director and assistant director, Karen Buchheim, who pulls triple duty on this show, and were lovely, especially Joanna’s evening gown. A slight criticism though is that some of the changes seemed to take quite a while and held up the transitions between scenes in both acts.
Over all, LTVB’s production of Present Laughter offers a solid night of theatre that will have audiences laughing. It is probably not for the younger crowd. Though the adult themes are tackled with absolutely no vulgarity, a lovely reminder in this day and age about the effectiveness of dialogue and innuendo, the overall pace and themes of the show are best for teens and up.
The show runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm now through October 6th and tickets are available online at https://ltvb.com/.