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"Present Laughter" Lacks Sparkle

Directed by Nicholas Martin
Written by Noel Coward
Starring Victor Garber, Harriet Harris, Holley Fain, Pamela Jane Gray


The title comes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night:

What is love? / Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:/ In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,/ Youth's a stuff will not endure.

Except that Garry Essendine (Victor Garber), who has the sense of a flighty youth, is a self-absorbed actor of 54. He is wont to shave a decade or so off his life, especially when he is playing up to pretty young women. Noel Coward's semi-autobiographical comedy is at times amusing – it is meant to be a send-up of the actor and his entourage — but it's nowhere near as clever as Coward can be. And the production by director Nicholas Martin lacks sparkle.

It's the late 1930s, and Essendine inhabits a stunning London Art Deco apartment, with leather chairs, a three-tier icicle chandelier and a winding staircase to second floor, smartly designed by Alexander Dodge. It is his stage set, and he gets the spotlight, which is how he wants it. The hammy Essendine, who pretends to eternal youth and pleasure, playacts his real life, wearing a wardrobe of dinner jackets as costumes and peppering his dialogue with speeches from plays or a Shelley poem. He admits, "I'm always acting…watching myself go by….I belong to my public." Garber perfectly captures this man who is so full of himself that he is his own best audience.

He also declares, "What would you all be without me?" That raises some questions about those who hover around him. Where is their center; what's in it for them? They are just as much objects of Coward's satire, but it's hard to figure out where he stands. Is everyone meant to seem ridiculous?

Two people seem to really care about Essendine. Monica Reed (the sharp, smart Harriet Harris), his secretary of 17 years, of course is paid for her devotion. His estranged wife Liz (a very cool Lisa Banes) must have her own reasons for constantly hanging around, especially since she is the one who walked out.

But the others who flit around are in various ways ludicrous: Daphne Stillington (Holley Fain), 24, ends up spending the night because she wants to be a star. Joanna Lyppiatt (Pamela Jane Gray), the wife of his agent, appears to be making a game of infidelity. Roland Maule (Brooks Ashmanskas) the loony would-be playwright who occasionally flies through the air, wants Coward to read his script.

I connected best with the "backstairs" part of the bunch, Miss Erickson (Nancy E. Carroll), the Scandinavian maid. Eccentric in style, Carroll's cameo is a real character and makes you wonder who is really weird here. Well, Monica is not weird either, and good jobs were probably hard to get. But she's as much a nurse maid as a secretary to this immature "star."

There is some typical Coward repartee such as Joanna – who is desirous of an affair with the actor — declaring, "You are no more emotionally sincere than I am" and he responding that women like Joanna undermine civilization.

But most of the action is not very credible, even if those things probably do happen and ostensibly happened to Coward. The play, written in 1939, shows its age with devices such as women claiming to forget their door keys. It is peopled with stock characters such as the ingénue who wants to sleep with the star. And the notion that Essendine is about to do an acting tour in Africa seems absurd. Africa? Where? The play picks up in the second act with farcical exits and entrances, people hiding in rooms, and the revelation of secret trysts and identities as all the strands in the stories get knotted together.

Still, I missed the familiar Coward wit.

Present Laughter
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theater

227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY
Opened January 21, 2010; Closes March 21, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Joan Marcus


Kevin's Digital Week 15: Myth and McCarey

Blu-Ray of the Week

The Minotaur
(Opus Arte)
The future is now for opera recordings, as this work by British modernist Harrison Birtwistle, which premiered in London in April 2008, is available only on DVD and Blu-ray, not CD. The Minotaur—a staggeringly powerful work by Birtwistle, whose earlier operas tended toward the obscure, dramatically and musically—is a perfect example of how Blu-ray’s high-definition visuals and surround-sound audio give opera fans the best possible conditions under which to appreciate any work, new or old.

Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera House Chorus in a superb reading of Birtwistle’s characteristically thorny, spiky score; the performers—led by John Tomlinson’s Minotaur, Johan Reuter’s Theseus and Christine Rice’s Ariadne—handle the fiendishly difficult vocal and dramatic demands. Stephen Langridge’s staging is both direct and metaphorical, the perfect visualization of this Greek myth. The lone extra is a half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, Myth Is Universal.

DVD of the Week

Make Way for Tomorrow
Leo McCarey’s 1937 melodrama, one of Hollywood’s supreme tearjerkers, never approaches mere sentimentality. A forerunner of Yasujiro Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story (1953), Make Way explores how a long-married couple is shunted aside by their children in turn after losing their comfortable Manhattan apartment to the local bank. McCarey shows how aging parents can make their grown children so uncomfortable that they prefer not to deal with them—the resulting finale, when the couple goes “on the town” one final time, is memorably poignant.

The film's biggest flaw is a group of one-dimensional actors unable to carry the weight of their acidly-drawn characters; other than that, Make Way for Tomorrow is another DVD triumph for Criterion. The 73-year-old black and white film looks splendid, and the contextual supplements include interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddins, and insightful essays by Tag Gallagher and director Bertrand Tavernier.

Kevin's Digital Week 14: Audrey and Adolf

Blu-ray of the Week

Coco Before Chanel
Director Anne Fontaine’s conventionally enjoyable biopic — arecounting of the great French designer’s life before she became famous — is dominated by Audrey Tautou’s dazzling star turn, which gives the movie much of its style and panache. Although Tautou is far prettier than the real-life Coco Chanel, she shares a severe, dark beauty—and a pair of luminously piercing eyes—as she exudes the self-confident allure that made Coco irresistible to both men and women.

Even with the genre’s built-in limitations (a fatal accident seems like a screenwriter’s contrivance, even though it really happened), Coco Before Chanel is, thanks to Tautou’s grace and Fontaine’s adherence to the designer’s dictum that simplicity is best, exceptionally entertaining. On Blu-ray, Coco dazzles visually, Fontaine’s commentary is chatty and informative, and a behind-the-scenes documentary includes interviews with the director and her superstar.

DVD of the Week

Hitler’s Bodyguard
(Athena/Acorn Media)
This 13-part, 10-hour documentary looks at the Third Reich and Second World War era from a slightly different perspective. A thorough, endlessly fascinating historical account, this series is an absorbing overview of the thousands of men among various Nazi groups whose job was to safeguard the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, thanks to the constant possibility of his being an assassins’ target. Even though much of the information is not particularly new, the skillful presentation makes Hitler’s Bodyguard an important historical document.

Aside from the usual unnecessary recreations of events that mar many current non-fiction history programs—do we really need actors dressed as Nazis driving around in swastika-laden automobiles?—Hitler’s Bodyguard gives a suspenseful, exciting account of a glossed-over aspect of WWII study: who was responsible for watching over Hitler during a dozen years and more than 40 attempts on his life? There are no extras on any of the four discs—the lengthy series speaks for itself—although the set includes a short viewer’s guide.


Kevin's Digital Week 13: Studio Canal Trio, Majestic Zinn History

Blu-rays of the Week

The Studio Canal Collection—Contempt, The Ladykillers, Ran
For its first American Blu-ray releases, France’s Studio Canal has chosen three classics from three eras: Alexander Mackendrick’s blackly comic The Ladykillers (1955), Jean-Luc Godard’s bleakly comic Contempt (1963) and Akira Kurosawa’s black, bleak war drama Ran (1985). While the films themselves are superb—The Ladykillers features the incomparable Alec Guinness, Contempt grandiosely demonstrates Godard’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood, and Ran, among Kurosawa’s grandest epics, poetically shows man’s inhumanity—the Blu-ray releases are not a grand slam.

There are generally satisfactory transfers: although Ran and Contempt have less-than-stellar visuals, The Ladykillers has been superbly restored. Among the plentiful extras providing important contextual information about each film are a Daniel Day Lewis-narrated documentary about Ealing Studios, Forever Ealing, that’s the best Ladykillers bonus; One Upon a Time There Was...Contempt, which brilliantly explores Godard’s classic film; and several Kurosawa featurettes on Ran give a good overview of a remarkable career. A promising Blu-ray start from Studio Canal and LionsGate. 

DVD of the Week

The People Speak
This unlikely but triumphant dramatization of the late Howard Zinn’s popular A People’s History of the United States is a gripping account of how our country was shaped by ordinary people: those whose voices are ignored in most history books. Filmed at Boston’s historic Majestic Theater, The People Speak is narrated by Zinn (who recently died at age 87) and includes stars of stage, screen and music—from actors Kerry Washington, Kathleen Chalfant, Rosario Dawson, Josh Brolin, Danny Glover and Matt Damon to singers Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen—all proclaiming the immortal words of dozens of unheralded patriots over the course of several centuries of American history. 

Of course, an event like this will generate more cries of “Hollywood elites/liberals rewriting history” — and there are moments of foolishness, such as Zinn disparaging Abraham Lincoln with an out-of-context comment about his wanting to save the union without freeing any slaves. Still, The People Speak is memorable viewing for anyone interested in American history. Extras comprise short backstage glimpses and interviews with Zinn, performers and audience members.

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