Friday, March 25, 2011

Present Laughter

PRESENT LAUGHTER misses the mark at CWRU/CPH Graduate Ensemble

Noel Coward is the crown prince of mid-twentieth century British farce. The good news is the Case Western Reserve University-Cleveland Play House Graduate Ensemble chose to produce Coward’s wonderful script, PRESENT LAUGHTER. The bad news is that, with the exception of a few performances, the ill-directed production doesn’t live up to the writing.

The script, which was written in 1939, was described by Coward as a “a series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics,” starred Coward in its original production, basically playing himself. The underlying double entendres, hints at homosexuality and the intimation of scandal, made the play an instant hit in England, and has been revived and revived on both sides of the pond.

The story centers on the self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-centered Garry Essendine, a light weight British actor who is about to embark on a theatrical tour of 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 his own obsession with oncoming middle age.

In a good production the play is a total delight. The caveat is that British farce is hard to do. But it can be done. It requires a director who understands that this is not melodrama or broad comedy. It is farce. It requires perfect timing, actors who understand that reality, not overdone gestures and feigning characterizations. That is what makes this type of script work.

Some of the cast do well. Kelli Ruttle as Essendine’s wife, Liz, is delightful. She creates a real person. Kim Krane, as the secretary, shows a flair for sarcasm and uses her face and voice well to convey clear meanings. The talented Andrew Gorell has excellent comic timing and is a hoot as a bizarre writer with an obsession for Essendine. TJ Gainley, as Fred the butler, flits in and out with a nice flair.

On the other hand, shouting and wandering accents summarize the performances of Yan Tual (Morris Dixon) and Michael Herbert (Hugo Lyppiatt) as Essendine’s friends. Erin Bunting, with a fake electric cigarette clinched between her teeth and an accent that was indiscernible, overdid the role of Miss Erickson, the housekeeper. Caroline Santa, as a young ingĂ©nue and Eva Gil, as Hugo’s philandering wife, never did seem to find their characterizations.

And then there was Dan Hendrock as Essendine. He feigned facial and vocal expressions and overdid the character to the degree that instead of real, he became surreal.

To add to the problems, set designer Jill Davis so overstocked the tiny Brooks Theatre stage that there was little room for the actors to walk around. Huge furniture, though it was period correct, was everywhere, everywhere, everywhere!

Kristine Davies’ costumes were era correct and fit the mood of the script as did the musical interludes.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Case Western Reserve University-Cleveland Play House Graduate Ensemble has done some excellent work. PRESENT LAUGHTER isn’t one of the good ones. This is a graduate acting program, with professional staff. The audience should expect and get high level theatre, not a sub-quality production.