The play is directed by R. Michael Gros, with sets and lighting by Patricia Frank and costumes by Pamela Shaw. The play stars guest artist Arthur Hanket (Gary Essendine), Katherine Bottoms (Daphne Stillington), Susie Couch (Miss Erikson), Joshua Danyel (Morris Dixon), Jill Dolan (Monica Reed), Bill Egan (Hugo Lyppiatt), Marion Freitag (Lady Saltburn), Sean Jackson (Roland Maule), Isabel Nelson (Joanna Lyppiatt), Jenna Scanlon (Liz Essendine) and Justin Stark (Fred).
In his quintessentially British manner, Coward produced, in Present Laughter, a kind of quintessentially French farce, with lovers and wives, outraged husbands and unbalanced admirers, popping in and out of “the spare room,” pounding angrily on the front door, and bursting, at the drop of a hat, into tears or tirades. Shades of Feydeau!
Yet, for all the farcical comings and goings, there are serious things going on beneath the play’s giddy surface. England is on the brink of war, and when it comes, Coward will serve his country with distinction, first in a low level of intelligence gathering, then in a high-profile tour of battlefronts, as an entertainer — not to mention writing, directing (with David Lean), and starring in the greatest propaganda feature ever made, In Which We Serve.
True to Eugène Scribe’s recipe for a “well-made play,” however, Present Laughter is singularly driven by the desires of its protagonist. What the light comedy star, Gary, wants is to get ready for his upcoming tour of Africa, and it seems as if everybody he knows, including some he has just met, is conspiring to prevent him getting what he wants. Gary is vain, childish and insecure, but he is intensely serious about the theater, and absolutely unsentimental about its practitioners.
There are few lines in Present Laughter that are as endlessly quotable as some in Private Lives — such as Amanda’s “Extraodinary how potent cheap music can be,” and even that is funnier because of the context (the song to which she is referring was written by Coward) — but there are laughs aplenty, mostly arising out of the difference between what characters say and what they are trying to avoid saying. When the silly debutane, Daphne, who has known Gary for about 10 hours, says to Monica, his long-suffering secretary of 17 years, “I think he’s even more charming off the stage than on, don’t you?” she replies (”With a slight smile”): “I can never quite make up my mind.”
In the bleak winter of 1942, the genius designer and photographer Cecil Beaton took a night off from his war work to spend the evening with his friends, John and Gillian Sutro. When he arrived, with soaking feat, whom should he find standing in front of their roaring fire but \Coward. Beaton and Coward had not been on the best of terms; each had said unkind things to each other. Now they greeted each other like long lost friends. After a good deal of gin had been consumed, Beaton blurted out, “I’ve never really minded your being bloody about me, but it has baffled me that a person of your perspicacity should have shown no interest in me.”
“Don’t you believe it, sister,” Coward said, at once, “I’ve been madly interested in you! But I’ve been a fool, I’ve misjudged you. The war has shown how wrong I’ve been. You’ve done a great job — you’ve whipped off in a bomber to Iceland, you’ve earned great respect in the RAF; and it just shows what a mistake I made. You’ve been yourself always, and how right you have been. I’ve been hiccupping off at the outbreak of war, thinking it was a wonderful thing to give up those two plays that were already in production to do a job that anyone could have done. You’ve done much better than I just by sticking to your guns: people respect you more for that.”
Aside from Coward’s reference to “two plays” he gave up, one of which was Present Laughter and the other This Happy Breed, the interest in this passage will become clear to you when you listen to Gary laying down the law of the theater for the talented young dolt, Roland Maule, you will recognize the tone, and the style of the harangue. Beaton has caught Coward to perfection.
Present Laughter will show at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays, March 8-23, in the Garvin Theater on SBCC’s West Campus. Tickets for Thursday evenings and Sunday matinees are $21 for general admission, $16 for seniors and $12 for students; for Friday and Saturday evenings, $23 for general admission, $18 for seniors and $15 for students. Parking is free and near the theater.
For more information or reservations, call the Garvin Theatre box office at 805.965.5935 or click here to purchase tickets online.