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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We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2012 season

Shaw

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season had three Bernard Shaw plays, plus My Fair Lady, but in 2012 the playbill will be back down to two.  Neither Misalliance nor The Millionairess is a major work, and The Millionairess won’t start up till late June. Last fall the Shaw Festival hosted a two-day forum on the “relevance” of Shaw, and everyone agreed solemnly that his plays are still very, very important. But even if the Shaw Festival sticks with its custom of putting on two Shaw plays every season, it seems clear that Shaw won’t necessarily be front and center in any given season anymore.

We do get it. Personally, we look forward to the Shaw plays, but some people who go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for theater avoid them like the plague.  Shaw isn’t like Shakespeare; he simply doesn’t have hard-core fans. According to a recent Shaw Festival press release, only 65,000 of the 274,800 tickets sold at the Shaw Festival in 2011 were for Shaw plays. The management brags that this is up from 50,000 and 52,500 for Shaw plays in 2009 and 2010, but that really doesn’t say much; it’s not surprising that three plays sold more tickets than two.

Emsworth is stoked about the lineup for 2012, despite what has become an annual disappointment: the Festival is still shying away from Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. Our earlier experiences with William Inge (in 2005), Githa Sowerby (in 2004 and 2008), and Terence Rattigan (also in 2008) left us wanting more of their plays, and in the 2012 season we get all three.  It’s rude to say it, but we find the Shaw Festival’s lineup for 2012 considerably more attractive top-to-bottom than the one at Stratford, which has only three Shakespeare plays and includes such head-scratchers as You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a Homer Simpson version of Macbeth.

Here’s what we think of the 2012 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge).  Bach in 2004, Emsworth and wife found the Shaw Festival production of William Inge’s Bus Stop so appealing that we saw it twice.  That show, a sexually charged story of folks stranded during a blizzard at a bus stop in the middle of Kansas, was directed by Jackie Maxwell, who will now direct Inge’s first successful play, Come Back, Little Sheba.

There’s likely to be plenty of middle-America passion in this show too, with regrets and recriminations. The protagonists are a midwestern chiropractor and the former beauty queen he had to marry twenty years earlier; their lives change when they take a college student into their home as a boarder. Corrine Kozlo and Ric Reid will play the lead roles.

Michael Ball

2. French Without Tears (Terence Rattigan).  French Without Tears was Rattigan’s first successful play. It’s a light comedy whose tone will surely be very different from the witty but sobering After the Dance, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2008. 

We were dazzled by After the Dance, our first Rattigan play (see this Emsworth post), and since then we’ve gone out of our way to dig deeper.  We’ve found and devoured copies of his plays The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and After the Dance, all of which are notable for their elegant construction, brilliant, subtle characterizations, and economical dialogue. We’ve also seen several movies based on Rattigan’s plays — he did a lot of screenwriting — including Separate Tables and The Browning Version (the classic 60-year-old British film versions), both of which we now rank among our very favorite movies, The Winslow Boy (again the original version), and The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, as well as The V.I.P.s, for which he wrote the screenplay.

All this reading and movie-watching has made Emsworth a serious fan of Terence Rattigan, and now we understand why Jackie Maxwell apparently thinks his plays worthy of being in rotation at the Shaw Festival along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noël Coward.  There were, incidentally, revivals of a couple of Rattigan plays in the London theaters this last year — perhaps Ms. Maxwell is simply riding the wave. We’re pleased to see that Michael Ball, still one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, will have a leading role in French Without Tears .

3. Misalliance (Bernard Shaw). By the time Shaw wrote Misalliance in 1909, his plays were beginning to rely less on believable plots and action and more on learned chatter — so much so that in Misalliance the characters themselves gripe about all the talking and preaching!  Poking a little fun at himself, probably, Shaw has Johnny Tarleton complain to his father about didactic novels:

I’ll bet what you like that I read more than you, though I don’t talk about it so much. Only, I don’t read the same books. I like a book with a plot in it. You like a book with nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing his own tail. I can stand a little of it, but a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing.

At the play’s end, Johnny’s father finally mumbles, “Well, I — er — well, I suppose — er — I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” His daughter’s reaction:

Hypatia [fervently] Thank goodness!

Misalliance has a lot of the same proto-absurdist elements as Heartbreak House, which Shaw wrote about eight years later. (See this post for a catalog of Emsworth’s grievances with Heartbreak House, which we saw again at the Shaw Festival this last summer.) In each play, residents and guests at a country house are menaced by aircraft, and in each an intruder bursts into their midst who — surprise — turns out to be part of someone’s past.  In each play characters are intensely attracted to one another on five minutes’ acquaintance, and in each an old coot falls for a young woman.

But there is still a lot of snappy stuff in Misalliance, and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Wade Bogert-O’Brien, a young actor whom we liked very well in last year’s Candida, will play the adventurous aviator Joey Percival. It’s not a lengthy play, as Shaw plays go.

4. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen). We continue to be dismayed that some of our favorite Shaw Festival performers, like Ben Carlson, Kelli Fox, Evan Buliung, and Deborah Hay, have migrated over to Stratford in the last several years. Even Christopher Newton, the Festival’s former Artistic Director, will be directing Shakespeare there in 2012. But one of the finest performers in the history of either company, Martha Henry, is coming to the Shaw Festival in 2012 to direct Hedda Gabler.

We’ve been trying to cultivate an appreciation for Ibsen, and for Netflix subscribers we can heartily recommend a 1973 film version of A Doll’s House starring Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Richardson that we saw just a couple of weeks ago. For all its enormous reputation we don’t know Hedda Gabler, which is about the hijinks of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Moya O’Connell, Patrick McManus, and Gray Powell will make up the play’s love triangle. This is just the sort of play that belongs in the Courthouse Theatre, where it will be staged.

In the work of Ibsen, said Emma Goldman, “lay all the instruments for the radical dissection of society.” Or, at least, that’s what E. L. Doctorov said she said in his novel Ragtime. (Doctorov probably didn’t entirely make this up; see this Goldman essay on Ibsen.) On the other hand, H. L. Mencken, a scribe whose judgment we generally respect, insisted that Ibsen was no “tin-pot radical” at all. According to Mencken, Ibsen “believed in all the things that the normal, law-abiding citizen of Christendom believes in, from democracy to romantic love, and from the obligations of duty to the value of virtue, and he always gave them the best of it in his plays.” We wonder which view of Ibsen Martha Henry’s direction will take.

5. Ragtime (musical based on the novel). Ragtime seemed to us the best of the E. L. Doctorov novels that we read, but we could never figure out how they could make a musical out of it, especially one that is almost entirely musical numbers and hardly any dialogue, like an opera.

The book includes more characters and subplots than could possibly be fit into a musical play. But Les Miserables was a much bigger book, and they made the best musical in 40 years out of it. We will soon find out. Thom Allison will play Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black piano player driven to extremes by racial oppression.  Emsworth himself has happily played much of Scott Joplin on the piano for years and hopes there will be plenty of ragtime music in this show.

6. His Girl Friday (Suzan-Lori Parks). This play’s title will be familiar to any fan of Hollywood screwball comedies, but the 1940 movie was adapted from a 1928 play called The Front Page. The play at the Shaw Festival in 2012 is an adaptation of both, done by the playwright John Guare (best known for Six Degrees of Separation) in 2003.  It’ll be closer to the movie than the play.

The Shaw Festival has hit big and missed big on classic American comedies. The hits include a couple of funniest things we’ve ever seen on stage, You Can’t Take It With You (1998 and 1999) and Born Yesterday (2009), but the misses include a disappointing The Women (2010) (see this post) and a sour, unfunny Three Men on a Horse (2004). The announcement that Benedict Campbell and Nicole Underhay will play the “Cary Grant” and “Rosalind Russell” roles, respectively, in His Girl Friday gives us reason to hope for this show. Jim Mezon is directing; it’s disappointing that he seems to be appearing as an actor in only one play in 2012 (a supporting role in Hedda Gabler).

Coward

7. Present Laughter (Noël Coward). Three years after a Shaw Festival season that included four Noël Coward shows, Coward is back. Garry Essendine, an actor in light comedies who is the lead character in this 1939 play, is a lot like Coward himself; several other characters are thought to have been based on some of his close friends and lovers. Steven Sutcliffe will play Garry Essendine.

8. A Man and Some Women (Githa Sowerby). Githa Sowerby is so obscure that she doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. (We’re thinking of rectifying that.) But Jackie Maxwell has pulled her out of obscurity; the Sowerby play The Stepmother, which we saw in 2008, gave us a wonderful evening of entertainment (see this Emsworth post). We know nothing about this 1914 play of Sowerby’s — probably no one else does, either — except that it involves money conflicts in a family consisting of a man and two spinster sisters.

9. The Millionairess (Bernard Shaw). This Shaw play is near the end of our list, but not because we’re not interested in it. One reason is that we have a mild crush on Nicole Underhay, who will play Epifania Fitzfassenden, a rich girl forbidden by her father’s will from marrying unless her fiance can turn 150 pounds into 50,000 pounds within six months. Shaw was 80 years old when he wrote The Millionairess, which we think is the last play Shaw wrote that had any real entertainment value.

10. Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein). The Shaw Festival’s one-hour-long lunchtime show in 2012 will be an opera! Leonard Bernstein’s songs tell the story of an American housewife and her white-collar husband. Like all the Shaw’s lunchtime shows, this one will be a great bargain at $32 per ticket. We thoroughly enjoyed Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and West Side Story at Stratford in 2009.

11. Helen’s Necklace (Carole Fréchette). In the new Studio Theatre space will be a play by French-Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette, presented in English. The story promises to be a modestly fantastical account of a woman who has lost a necklace in a city in the Middle East like Baghdad or Beirut. The lead role will be played by Tara Rosling, whom we remember as Eliza Doolitte in Pygmalion a few years back. This show runs for only a month and a half, starting in mid-July.