Nöel Coward’s 1940s-period romance Present Laughter is as funny today as it was when Coward himself played the lead character, a character he admitted was a spoof on himself. It’s now playing at Harlequin Productions in Olympia, with Aaron Lamb in the role Coward originated, directed by Linda Whitney and featuring a large cast of top-notch actors from Olympia and Seattle.
Garry Essendine (Lamb) is a rich, famous actor known for histrionic roles in romantic comedies, playing characters not unlike himself in plays not unlike Present Laughter. He’s egotistical and constantly overemoting with outsize, dramatic gestures. He loves himself, and just about everyone else in the play loves him as well. Some, like the would-be actress Daphne Stillington (Marianna de Fazio) and would-be playwright Roland Maule (Xander Layden), love him worshipfully or even obsessively; others, such as his housekeeper (Maggie Ferguson-Wagstaffe), his valet (Dennis Rolly), his long-suffering secretary (Ann Flannigan) and even his ex-wife, Liz (Laura Hanson), love him almost as a parent might love a mischievous child while seeing right through his absurd posturing. Essendine himself is going through a midlife crisis and at 42 is beginning to realize he’s middle aged and can’t keep up the frantic pace of his life.
People keep showing up at his house unannounced and uninvited. Daphne tries to seduce him, as does Joanna (Helen Harvester), who’s married to his best friend (Bruce Haasl) and is having an affair with his agent (Gabriel McClelland). The only invited guest is the crazed playwright, who keeps coming back after being rejected.
Even the smallest roles, Rolly as the valet and Ferguson-Wagstaffe as the constantly smoking and shuffling housekeeper, are hilarious. The two get laughs simply by walking from one door to another. All the other supporting actors are outstanding. The seduction scenes with first Daphne and then Joanna are precious; de Fazio is outstanding as the desperate Daphne and Harvester is sleek and sensuous as Joanne. There’s one scene in which Joanne seduces Essendine on an oversized ottoman; her sensually slithering movements reminded me of similar movements she performed in Mating Dance of the Werewolf, also at Harlequin.
That brings us to Lamb, the outsize star of this star-studded comedy. Lamb, seen recently as Richard Hanney in The 39 Steps and as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, is an actor of amazing versatility. In this case, it’s athletic pratfalls and histrionic posturing that bring the house down.
Also deserving of special notice are the gorgeous set designed by Jeannie Beirne, lighting by Amy Chisman and authentic costuming by Darren Mills.
The program lists the play as two hours and 20 minutes including a 20-minute intermission, but opening night went somewhat longer. It could have run three hours and wouldn’t have seemed too long.
(This review appears courtesy of The News Tribune.)
What: Present Laughter
Where: Harlequin Productions’ State Theater,
202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays – Saturdays,
2 p.m. Sundays, May 4-27
How much: $20-$34
Learn more: 360-786-0151 | Harlequin Productions