Present Laughter, which is at the Garvin Theatre through March 23, stands slightly apart from the other classic stage comedies of its author, Noel Coward. It’s got plenty of Coward’s signature wit and panache, but perhaps because it’s so deliberately personal and autobiographical — Coward himself played the lead in the premiere — the structure is more loose and the plot more open ended. Most of the tension stems from an entirely static device, in which matinee idol Garry Essendine (Arthur Hanket) sorts through his complex affairs on the eve of his departure for a tour of Africa. But the play’s one setting — the sumptuous living room of Essendine’s glamorous London townhouse — proves, with all its comings and goings and spare rooms and offices, to be as reliable a source of comic opportunities as Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment.
Director R. Michael Gros’s production benefits from a remarkably strong cast. As Garry, Hanket delivers the fast pace and vitality that the role requires and does so while looking and behaving exactly like Coward — which is no small feat. The bounce and sizzle of his characterization set off several of the night’s many euphoric bursts of laughter. His chief comic foils in the play’s more physical sequences are a wonderfully bright and funny Katherine Bottoms as the young aristo Daphne Stillington, and the absolutely bonkers stalker/playwright Roland Maule, who is rendered unforgettable by the manic energy of Sean Jackson. Jackson and Hanket’s scenes together are uniformly hysterical.
The show’s most extended sequence involves a kind of seduction showdown between Essendine and his producer’s wife, Joanna Lyppiatt (Isabel Nelson). By her serial bedding of her husband, Hugo (Bill Egan), and his business partner in the theater, Morris Dixon (Joshua Danyel), Joanna provokes a storm of semi-moralistic attitudinizing from Garry, who condemns her as “predatory as hell” and calls her “an attractive, unscrupulous pirate.” Of course, none of this indignation prevents him from succumbing to her considerable charms, and the result is yet more household chaos.
No self-respecting stage Brit of the upper class would dare go on without a quirky, impertinent staff, and that aspect of Garry’s complicated life is not overlooked. Justin Stark is a rock as Fred, the unshockable, unflappable valet. Susie Couch has a ball with the role of Miss Erikson, Essendine’s flaky maid, and Jill Dolan is commanding as Essendine’s secretary Monica Reed. She undertakes the endless task of ordering Essendine’s unruly life with gusto, at one point earning this memorable positive evaluation from her boss: “I do envy you, Monica,” says Garry. “You’re so unruffled and efficient. You go churning through life like some frightening old warship.”
There’s a lot more to Present Laughter than slamming doors, one-liners, and double takes, and in this production, that other side of Coward manifests mostly through Jenna Scanlon’s subtle and beautifully crafted performance as Liz Essendine, the playwright’s estranged wife and current chief minder. Operating as the voice of reason in such an obvious madhouse would seem a thankless task, yet Scanlon finds in Liz just the right balance, avoiding both an unbecoming archness and a too aggressive sense of I-told-you-so. It’s no wonder that, along with the audience, certain others onstage wind up convinced of her out-of-the-ordinary charm.