Present Danger 

Some Noël Coward plays tanked when first opened. This was one.

Beloved as Noël Coward is of audiences, there is a long and rich history of theater critics not getting his work. In his memoirs, the playwright's longtime companion, Graham Payn, is downright gleeful about some of the bad notices Coward got from critical luminaries as Kenneth Tynan, probably because people still know who Coward is, and not Tynan. I'm coming up a traditionalist after seeing Actors Ensemble's clunky Present Laughter, a "light comedy" that's definitely light on the comedy. While the director and cast certainly can answer for the show's lackluster pacing, the playwright himself must be held accountable for the ambiguous tone of the work.

A good friend and contemporary of Cole Porter, Coward came of age as an actor and playwright in WWII London. A creative and prolific man -- when he wasn't singing, acting, writing, or directing, he also painted -- Coward was known for his wit and exuberance. By all accounts he was also known for writing fast and never looking back (his Hay Fever took just three days to write); he could be incredibly sloppy in his writing and didn't believe in revivals of his plays unless he, or an actor he cared about who needed the work, was strapped for cash. So although he talked a big game about precision craftsmanship, it doesn't always show in his work.

A certain mushiness is thus evident in Present Laughter, the most autobiographical of Coward's works. It's a comedy, sure, but it's based so closely on his friends and associates that it has a self-consciousness that does not translate into humor. There are also some relationships, based on ones in Coward's own life, that have been bowdlerized to the point of meaninglessness.

The story follows a week in the life of famous stage actor Garry Essendine, who lives in a chic London studio (beautifully realized here by Rose Anne Raphael in brick red and clean angles), the nerve center of an organism composed of business partners, household help, adoring fans, one-night stands, and one ex-wife whom Essendine never really got around to divorcing.

It's a gloss on Coward's real circle, known to insiders as "the family," and kind of an in-joke as a result. In other words, it's very funny if you know that Monica the secretary is based on Coward's secretary Lorn Loraine, or that Garry's business partners Morris and Hugo are variations on Jack Wilson, Coward's former lover and business manager. The predatory Joanna, Hugo's wife, is actually Natasha, a woman who claimed to be a princess of the Romanovs and married Jack after Noel gave him the boot.

Essendine, who differs from Coward only in his heterosexuality, claims that he just wants some peace and quiet, preferably without all these starstruck youngsters foisting themselves on him. But we see immediately that it's a situation he's bringing on himself because he can't stand to be alone or unappreciated. The play opens with a pretty young thing Essendine brought home the night before getting the treatment from Essendine's valet, housekeeper, and secretary; sweet Daphne doesn't realize that there's a well-oiled mechanism for dealing with pretty young things who show up in the living room in the master's pajamas, demanding breakfast.

As the play progresses, more and more people show up demanding Garry's body, his love, or his devotion, while he himself tries to prepare for an extended tour of Africa. That's pretty much the story, although there's a subplot about Hugo and Joanna being unfaithful to each other that resolves unconvincingly with her admitting she married him to get at Garry.

So the play itself is funny, but not as funny as Coward's other, less self-referential works. And it requires variety, spark, and actors with impeccable timing, all of which it mostly lacks. There are several places where an actor could emphasize a word or phrase for effect without losing the feeling of naturalness director Stan Spenger appears to be striving for, but they don't, leaving the bits that are supposed to be funny submerged. The lack of vocal, or indeed physical, variety isn't surprising for Actors Ensemble, but it is for Spenger, who can usually get some tension and different kinds of pacing going in a show. His Comedy of Errors a few years back was an excellent example, as was the recent Phaedra, which had a clear and compelling buildup.

The scene where Joanna tries to seduce Garry is a good example of what's not working here: There's no sense of risk and very little change of tone. Joanna could be showing up to discuss the weather as easily as infidelity, while Garry could be reacting to a fan asking for an autograph instead of his friend's wife asking for sex. Louis Schilling, whose affected, lugubrious Garry does deliver one nice angry speech earlier in the act, barely flinches here. This should be the high-stakes confrontation the whole first act has been building toward, yet little of that comes across in the overlong pauses that substitute for chemistry. Instead it's as if they're sleepwalking toward a foregone conclusion. Only Joanna's last line, "Who could you and I possibly harm by loving each other for a while?," seems genuine, and it's a long slog to get there.

Tanya Lazar-Lea, who plays Joanna, was apparently cast for her astonishing legs and ability to lay them elegantly in Schilling's lap; certainly not for her overly subtle line delivery, or the way her head keeps moving. But it's not right or fair to single out this first-time actor for droning or moving in odd, nervous ways: Several of the actors drone, and Maureen Coyne's Monica has a definite rocking going on in the third act reminiscent of those kids who do it to calm themselves. Coyne has some great deadpan moments as Garry's long-suffering secretary, but she also lets some of the best lines of the show sink without a trace.

Vocal quality is a challenge here. Many of the actors, especially the women, are forcing their voices up through their sinuses to get a British accent, and the effect is unpleasant. The exceptions would be Kirsten Sawyer, who sidesteps nasality for near-total incomprehensibility as the Swedish housekeeper, and Melanie Curry, whose Liz is the most natural and believable character by a long stretch. The men have an easier time with it, especially David Stein's heartbroken Morris and Spenger pitch-hitting as Hugo the night I went (the role is usually played by Steve Schwartz). Dan Kurtz is often the liveliest thing on stage in his scenes as crazed fan Roland Maule, even if the character himself seems unreal (he is the one character Coward completely invented).

Often the actors aren't responding to each other. Characters reference things that aren't happening as though they are, or don't react to things that are happening. "I wish you'd stop asking questions and answering them yourself; it's making me giddy," Liz says, but there's nothing giddy in her voice or behavior. Similarly confusing is a character asking another to "stop pacing up and down" when the other isn't; sometimes the text and blocking are at odds. But then the blocking is generally more distracting than it is illuminative; it's as if Spenger is moving his people around just to keep the show's pulse up. Which would be par for the course with Coward, whose idea of stage movement seemed to focus on the lighting and flourishing of cigarettes. Like the voices and characterizations, the blocking -- indeed, the whole show -- could stand to be much crisper.

Time has been kinder to Coward's reputation than to his plays. Although everyone knows exactly what a "Noël Coward wit" is -- sophisticated, dry -- it's not as well known that he actually wrote quite a few plays that tanked. Present Laughter was one of them the first time it was staged, only redeeming itself in revivals. Which makes sense upon seeing this brave if tediously unfunny production.


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