The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends. These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.
This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident. I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.
I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s. What play to pick for my next star turn? What theater to put it in? What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg? How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?
Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support. Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).
The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle. Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.” Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.
In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry. Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play. Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.
Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece. People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters. The repartee dazzles.
But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine. Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile. How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)! Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him. The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement. We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry. And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.
Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play. Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on. (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.
And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle. The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred). And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her. Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.
This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side. Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas. Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.