Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

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.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

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).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

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.

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The Stepmother at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Jackie Maxwell

Jackie Maxwell

Emsworth admires the nerve of Jackie Maxwell, artistic director for the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario). In picking the playbill for the 2008 season, she chose one play (After the Dance) whose original production in 1939 ran for only a few performances and has languished in obscurity ever since.

And then she chose another play, a drama written by Githa Sowerby in the early 1920s that had never even been produced at all. Give her credit: The Stepmother is a remarkably good play, and the Shaw Festival’s production is a crowd-pleaser.

Blair Williams, Claire Julien, and Marla McLean

The Stepmother is the story of a smooth-talking con man, Eustace Gaydon (Blair Williams), his family, and his downfall. As the play begins, in 1911, Gaydon’s shady schemes have failed him and he is broke; he has even squandered moneys entrusted to him by his Aunt Charlotte (Jennifer Phipps). He expects, however, to escape exposure as soon as he receives an inheritance of 30,000 pounds from another rich relative who has just died. When Gaydon, a widower, learns that the money has been left instead to her young companion, Lois Relph (Clare Jullien), he hires her as a governess to his two young daughters, marries her, and starts over with her money.

Ten years later, his house of cards is collapsing again. His oldest daughter Monica (Marla McLean) needs money to get married, and her stepmother Lois, who has become deeply attached to the girls, wants to help. But Gaydon, again on the verge of a crash, keeps putting them off. His daughters and their stepmother are the last to know the truth about him.

Blair Williams, as the unscrupulous Eustace Gaydon, plays the most thoroughgoing villain seen at the Shaw Festival in years. Gaydon lies to his wife and toys with her mind much as Charles Boyer manipulated Ingrid Bergman in the classic thriller Gaslight. (Indeed, the program bios indicate that the stage version of Gaslight is among Blair Williams’s credits; I wonder which part he played.)

Claire Julien and Patrick Galligan

The sympathies of audience members at the performance I saw were all with Gaydon’s pretty wife; the audience didn’t for a minute blame the long-suffering Lois for yielding to a love affair with her generous, handsome neighbor Peter Holland (Patrick Galligan).

And the people in the seats had Gaydon’s number early in the play. By the second act, audience members in the intimate Court House Theatre (especially the women) were gasping and hissing with each bold new lie. Hostility toward Blair Williams, who clearly relished his role as a scoundrel, became marked and general.

Marla McLean and Jesse Martyn

The Stepmother is great entertainment, skillfully acted and crisply staged under the direction of Jackie Maxwell herself. Unusually for nonmusical plays at the Shaw Festival, the audience applauded with each scene change, not merely after each of the two acts. The show does not have a weak performance, but we especially enjoyed Marla McLean as Gaydon’s strong-willed daughter Monica Gaydon. We also admired the striking period costumes, designed by William Schmuck.

Our performance included a brief moment of unintended drama. During the play, the character played by talented veteran actress Jennifer Phipps ages by ten years, becomes elderly and infirm, and dies (offstage). Coming onto the stage for her bows, Miss Phipps tripped and fell to the floor, to the gasps of the alarmed audience. The applause stopped as the other actors helped her to her feet, then resumed with renewed vigor.