We're in Noel Coward Land With Present Laughter at Main Street Theater

Joel Sandel as Garry Essendine and Amanda Martinex as Joanna Lyppiatt in Present Laughter at Main Street Theater.
Joel Sandel as Garry Essendine and Amanda Martinex as Joanna Lyppiatt in Present Laughter at Main Street Theater. Photo by Pin Lim of Forest Photography

Brandy, whiskey, martini. Check. Bar cart loaded with decanters and glassware. Check. Silk dressing gown. Check. Divan for swooning upon. Check. Bitch-slap bubbly repartee. Check. Subtle, gay undertone. Check. Rock-ribbed and steel-riveted plot construction. Check. Actors giddy to be seen. Check.

Where might we be? There's only one place in the theater pantheon – Noel Coward Land. This fantasy territory of comic privilege is next door to Oscar Wilde Land. It's much ado about nothing, yet the nothing takes on great importance. It's earnest in its wit and charm, with a gimlet eye winking at us as the upper crust gets bashed with a velvet opera glove. Please don't take this too seriously, it asks bearing a martini and straightening its ascot. Be kind to these fools.

Present Laughter, entertaining us with trooper's grace and ease at Main Street Theater during these dog days of summer, shoots off rays of Art Deco pleasure as it transports us to its semi-autobiographical land of make-believe.

Aging matinee idol Gerry Essendine (Joel Sandal, reprising the Coward role he indelibly etched in Main Street's 2008 production) is flagging. Life is passing him. Garry’s not experiencing life, he wails self-dramatically, staring into a mirror watching his hair recede. He’s weary, oh, so weary, of being adored, while his life plays out without him. “I'm always acting, watching myself go by...Don't love me (PAUSE) too much.” You're peacocking again, Liz gently scolds when he's off on a tangent.

His life is a whirl and it's only late morning. His London flat will soon be filled with a whirligig of characters coming and going, some not going when they're told to, some slamming doors and huffing about, all in the orbit of Gerry. It's a celestial panoply – sturdy flinty secretary Monica (Elizabeth Marshall Black); longtime valet Fred (David Harlan); cigarette-dangling harried housekeeper Miss Erikson (Deborah Hope); young lover wanna-be Daphne (Alyssa Marek); sensible, almost ex-wife, Liz (Patricia Duran); agent/manager Morris (Kregg Dailey); exasperated producer Hugo (Harlan again); sexpot Joanna (Amanda Martinez); a Lady Bracknell knock-off, Lady Saltburn (Hope again, thankfully); and a crazed novice playwright who literally adores Gerry who locks himself inside the office to be near him, Roland Maule (Brock Hatton).

The plot, as it is, spins Wildely, as everyone wants a piece of Gerry. In satin dressing gown with cocktail cemented firmly in hand and spouting Coward’s archly artificial, yet highly musical, dialogue, Garry doesn’t want to be free of fame’s trappings any more than he’d relinquish the slavish adoration of those around him — it’s mother’s milk to him, if poured in a highball. Sandal embraces Gerry as if born to the manor.

Coward crafts his farce with his patented flair and consummate professionalism. He knows the value of a well-timed bon mot, the sharp sting of a quip, the sudden appearance of another character at just the inopportune moment. Everything sparkles in this faux world of showbiz.

Written in 1939, after Coward's huge successes with Hay Fever, Private Lives and Design for Living, Laughter wasn't produced until 1942 because of the shutting of the London theaters during the early days of WW II. Laughter isn't in the same league, but why quibble when even minor/major Coward is still in a class by itself. It's a rarefied class, to be sure, one where problems occur in or out of bed, and the biggest obstacle just might be the quality of the sherry.

Coward skewers himself, his status, and his hangers-on with pit master's precision. He has tremendous empathy for these silly tropes, and this antique from the good old days remains as relevant and resonant as ever. If a prince of England can bemoan his fate yet stalwartly court the press at every opportunity, Coward's message still rings true.

Main Street's production reeks with Deco charm, although the musical interludes should be more British dance band à la Ray Noble and Al Bowlly, than Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. James V. Thomas' set design is a lovely incantation of high-end living with its oil paintings, sculptures, niches, and bonsai tree offset by the swirling, colorful floor. But the costumes by Amber Stepanik are in another world entirely. Those wool trousers for Monica; that black and red ensemble for Joanna would be apt for an afternoon punnet of strawberries at Wimbledon; those close-cropped suits for sensible Liz; those luscious dressing gowns for Gerry – all perfect. Director Claire Hart-Palumbo, who helmed the 2008 production, keeps these loonies on a clear track, always pushing forward to the next quasi-crisis. At the end everyone is shouting to the rafters – very unCoward, the only setback to this tempest in a teapot.

The actors have a field day within their high-toned environment. They purr then scratch, wound then forgive on a star turn. Coward ends with the rightful lovers taking their leave surreptitiously, leaving troubles behind. Whatever peace these two think is around the corner, or that normalcy will return, is up for grabs. They've blithely forgotten in the moment that tomorrow brings another morning, and we know by 11 a.m. the whirlwind will begin anew. We wouldn't want it any other way.

Present Laughter continues 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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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover