Noel Coward's Present Laughter Returns to Main Street Theater

Patricia Duran and Joel Sandel in Present Laughter.
Patricia Duran and Joel Sandel in Present Laughter. Photo by by Pin Lim / Forest Photography

In Noel Coward's semi-autobiographical play Present Laughter, Joel Sandel once again plays Garry Essendine, the matinee idol of the theater in the middle of a mid-life crisis who loves fame but worries that his charms are fading.

Also back again is Claire Hart-Palumbo who directed the 2008 Main Street Theater production of the three-act comedy. The cast this time has nine members including some returning actors from the earlier production as well as new talent.  The play sets all its scenes in Garry's London apartment, through which a constant stream of people move.

Although Coward wrote the play in 1939, the start of World War II delayed its opening on the stage (all theaters shut down) until 1942 when Coward himself played the Garry role. The Main Street Theater production sets the play in 1950.

There are elements of farce in the rapid-paced play, Hart-Palumbo says. "There is seduction, there is machination, there is a vamp who is trying to seduce everyone including the main character. There's an ingenue who's badly in love with him. And all of these people are in and out, including his estranged wife who is one of his business partners. They've never quite gotten around to having a divorce but they've been separated for several years. And they are best friends.

"When it comes right down to it, she's the one who rescues him."

Garry is somewhat self-absorbed and his ego is a little overinflated, Hart-Palumbo says. "He has all of the people revolving around him. Some of them are his close friends who are his business partners and then there are people who just want to touch the garment so to speak."

The play and its main character shadow Coward in several ways. When he wrote it "he was just past his peak as a romantic lead," Hart-Palumbo says. "He was certainly famous. And probably had a lot of these very similar types of people around him. Those people who just wanted to know somebody famous or wanted to sleep with somebody famous."

The challenge for today's actors is to deliver the lines in the sort of fast patter called for in the script, she says. Hart-Palumbo says she directs them to the screwball comedies of the '30s.  "That kind of rapid pace repartee is very much a part of Coward.

"A lot of actors can relate to the fact that it really plays like a musical. Really because Coward's background is in musical theater, a step above burlesque. He comes from that very strong background in British musical theater that's a step below light opera and involves a lot of humor and some elements of French farce and comedy sketches."

In many ways, Coward was a sort of Renaissance man. Besides being a playwright and actor, he was a composer who Hart-Palumbo says wrote a lot of very popular comedy songs.

"He was a bon vivant. He was someone that everyone wanted at their parties because he was always funny and intelligent."

Despite all the humor, Coward covered serious issues. "It is about the cost of fame and how you can easily get caught up in the hype about yourself and how people who don't know you at all think they know you and make all kinds of assumptions about you based on your public persona," Hart-Palumbo says..

And despite the elements of farce that are certainly there, "He loved to write intelligent characters. Even the clown characters have something important or intelligent to say,"   she says.

As a reminder to audiences: this is a British comedy. "It sometimes takes their ear a minute or two to adjust.  The first few minutes is introducing all the characters, getting the ear acclimated and setting the tone for the comedy that's going to ensue. I think it's pretty easy to follow if you are paying attention.," she says.

"I think that Coward is the comedian for people who want to be entertained, who want to be somewhat mentally challenged and just have a good time."

Performances are scheduled for July 15 through August 13 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit $39-$59.
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