Saving farce 

UM’s Present Laughter a distant echo

Noel Coward’s Present Laughter is a farce of a farce, a winking send-up of the farce convention filled with innuendo and implication. The play, written by Coward in 1943, fixes on Garry Essendine, a fabulously famous and handsome actor known for his womanizing. He is so caddishly charming, women melt at his feet, even as he looks over their heads to glimpse himself in the mirror. About to turn 40, Essendine is vainly preoccupied with his fading youth and his commercial popularity, propped up by a cast of servants and devotees who traipse through his magnificent “studio” in the days before his departure for a working tour of Africa.

Coward’s world was sophisticated, English and coded, and the code was for gay life. Back when a whisper of homosexuality could ruin a person’s career, to say nothing of landing him in prison, Coward had to disguise his true nature. At the same time, he couldn’t help but allude to it, and he created the autobiographical Essendine to prop up the disguise and to reveal it, too. Jillian Campana’s production, which runs through this week and next in the Montana Theater, strikes the perfect note of knowing subterfuge and dissembling. Against Amber Felker’s magnificently bold Deco set, she has staged an antic farce that succeeds in being about the joke of theatrical indulgence as well as about the joke Coward is having on us.

Monte Jenkins plays Essendine, camping it up in a variety of silk dressing gowns and thoroughly enjoying his descent of the curving staircase, which forces him to pass at least one mirror every time he leaves his bedroom. In spite of his chiseled features and haughty demeanor, Jenkins hardly looks adult enough to be truly concerned with his age, but that just contributes to the absurdity of his vanity.

As the play opens, a young woman (Brooklynn Herzog) emerges in pajamas and hurries around the room squealing with sex-soaked glee every time she sets eyes on one of his numerous photographs. Quickly, we understand that she has met Essendine the night before and successfully managed an invitation to his flat. She is greeted by the long-suffering secretary (Irlonde Gagnon), the insolent valet (Cody Wirshing), the queer Swedish housekeeper and by Garry’s ex-wife, Liz, who is in possession of every possible secret Garry could have. This ensemble is used to Garry’s reputation, and has seen the emerging one-night stands before. They give her short shrift and send her on her way. Her experience becomes more comic later in the play when another woman is treated to the exact same routine. In this world, women are either hopelessly predatory fools or solid “warships” of sense and habit. Neither is too flattering a picture.

Enter Hugo and Morris (Andrew Dane Rossiter, Tom D. Stephan), Garry’s manager and producer. Campana waits until their entrance to begin toying with Coward’s code. Together with Essendine, they flounce around the stage, rolling their eyes and smacking each other on the bottom. These men are far better dressed than the women, and far more concerned with themselves. Every character, male or female, who comes into Garry’s house is in love with him, either overtly or secretly. Only the working-class valet is excused, a sensible bloke in pragmatic pursuit of sex. For everyone else, sex is about power, achievement, and most importantly, deception.

Present Laughter is a farce of situation and relies, like all farces, on door-slamming and off-stage revelations. Just like Coward, the play is charmingly slight, a trifle of jokes and allusions that fade quickly into the night air. Campana uses Coward’s own voice and music for the pre-show and intermission, his tinkling piano and masculine falsetto so recognizably belonging to a distant, gin-soaked age.

Sarah Jo Wojciechowshi-Prill, as Liz, has a dry sexiness that comes off as utterly practical and intellectually alluring. She has the wonderful affectation of tossing her head back to exhale from her cigarette and seems born for Beth Ensley’s costumes of the ’40s. Danny Luwe in the absurd role of a crazed fan camps it up, up, up and over the top to hilarious effect, his face bubbling with twitches and tics, his youthful appearance belied by a strong, deep voice. The character of the Swedish housekeeper, played by Nicki Poer, is virtually meaningless dramatically, except perhaps as an allusion to Blithe Spirit, but very busy with vaudevillian physical bits—cadging Essendine’s cigarettes and sparring with the valet. The cast is swift and fleet in delivery, knocking back their lines with the indulgent efficiency of martini drunks, and one comes away from the performance with the pleasant sensation of clandestine revelry. Present Laughter won’t last long in effect, but it’s a fine night’s entertainment.

UM’s drama department performs Present Laughter nightly at 7:30 PM in UM’s Montana Theater, located in the PAR/TV Building. Performances will be held through Dec. 13. For ticket information, call 243-4581.

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