Noël Coward’s Present Laughter is a 1939 comic play he described as “a series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics.” As with many of his plays, he starred in the original production himself, straddling the line between clever commentator on society’s foibles and member of the very society he was skewering.
SBCC Theatre Group’s production, running through March 23 at the Garvin Theatre, accomplishes a nearly flawless execution under the direction of R. Michael Gros. The theater arts students handle scenery, lighting, costumes,and makeup while professional-level actors from the community fill the roles.
Arthur Hanket is a delight in the main role of Garry Essendine, an aging, egotistical but not untalented actor with a penchant for parties and pretty girls. Charming and tyrannical in turn, he sits at the head of his own little empire as his staff scurries about doing his bidding. Hanket inhabits the debonair persona of Garry with ease and grace, and allows his vulnerable moments to come through as well.
As his estranged wife, who nonetheless remains one of his entourage, Jenna Scanlon is the epitome of a classy dame. She treats him with a nonchalant bemusement, unruffled by his tantrums. Isabel Nelson is intriguing as the wife of a close friend of theirs, a smoldering blonde with her eye on Garry.
A trio of wonderful actors play Garry’s staff: Jill Dolan hits all the right notes as his long-suffering secretary, and Justin Stark is perfect as his self-possessed valet. Susie Couch is used sparingly but to great comic effect as his eccentric Scandinavian housekeeper, Miss Erikson, in a swirl of colorful skirts with cigarette dangling from her lip.
As a young playwright verging on obsession with Garry, Sean Jackson is a highlight. His no-holds-barred commitment to the wild physicality of the part is impressive, as he leaps over furniture and bounds up stairs in his fawning and puppy-like efforts to get to the object of his desire. As he has demonstrated in many roles with local theater over the last several years, Jackson is clearly a talented comic actor with a wide range.
Scenic and lighting designer Patricia Frank and the entire team who created the set are to be commended on the accomplishment. The action of the play takes place entirely in Garry’s home, replicated here in all its art deco glory, complete with sweeping staircase.
With its excellent performances, smart and fast-paced dialogue, and farce-like hijinks, Present Laughter is an extremely entertaining evening of theater not to be missed for anyone who enjoys a witty turn of phrase.
Click here for tickets and information.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.