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In Hamlet we wonder whether the Prince is disturbed; in Present Laughter, we wonder whether Noel Coward’s alter ego Garry Essendine is acting.
What separates Elsinore from Essendine may be considerably more than the distance from mad to madcap, but it is a testament to Nicholas Martin’s fizzy production of Coward’s 1939 play, at Boston’s Huntington, that Shakespeare occasionally crept into my mind.
Such far-afield associations stem not from any attempt by Martin to make Coward’s story of an ageing matinee idol stand for anything significant. Essendine’s is still the story of his mirror-obsessed vanity and the chaos of his London flat when everyone in his life barges in.
I suspect that Martin has witnessed attempts to extract social consciousness from Present Laughter – including a Broadway production with Frank Langella that was too Orton-esque by half – and realised the truth of what Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Coward’s work: “with the passage of time, the profundities peel away and only the basic trivialities remain to enchant us”.
Excelling at the trivialities is Victor Garber, who was inevitable casting for Garry. Watching him peacock about the set in a succession of silk dressing gowns, I could not help but evaluate his performance on the basis of what sparkled from the play’s drinks trolley – Garry’s daily regimen of spirits is as eclectic as was that of Coward’s friend the Queen Mother.
There are Garber’s sherry-smooth send-off of a debutante; his whisky-gruff resolve in the face of a fanatical acolyte, played by Brooks Ashmanskas, who bounds across the deco-deluxe drawing room like a caffeinated puppy; and Essendine’s gin-stiff delivery when his Scandinavian- spiritualist housekeeper, a droll Nancy E. Carroll, announces a visitor.
Nothing in this amusing production, however, which is sub-par only in some of its supporting cast, approaches the delirium of one particular sight gag. It is initiated by Ashmanskas and culminates during a visit from a proper, pudding-figured older woman. The moral? Never, ever try to outdo the manners of a dowager.
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