Feature : Theater : 1.22.2009


Seinfeld on 24th and Hilyard
Noel Coward delivers laughs at the VLT
by Anna Grace

Noel Coward has been called the original Jerry Seinfeld. At the Very Little Theatre, Coward’s Present Laughter stretches that comedy of everyday life over 2 1/2 hours but keeps audience interest with a strong lead and excellent direction.

Liz Essendine (Liz Bjornstad), Garry Essendine (Bary Shaw) and Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Grobart) in Present Laughter

Laughter is a comedy of manners, where well-dressed characters say extremely witty things and nothing actually happens.Garry Essedine (Bary Shaw) is an aging, self-indulgent actor preparing for a tour of Africa. In the days before his departure, his well-appointed studio in London is taken over by obsessive ingénues, heartbroken playwrights, overly passionate producers, a thoughtful if estranged wife and the requisite host of mouthy house servants.

The crew makes the show fabulous. Costumes are perfectly fitted to each actor’s body and character, and everybody gets a cute hat. The set is amazing, Chinese modern décor, all black and red and gold with early 20th century accents. Designer Tim Tendick deserved the hearty applause from the audience upon the rise of the curtain. It is beautiful.

Shaw is brilliant as the overindulged, rapidly aging star actor. He combines  precise diction and real emotion to bring charm and complexity to the silk dressing gowns and childish whims of Essedine. Half of the characters in the play are in love with him, and by the final curtain, the audience may join them. For the most part, the cast keeps up with his lead, with a particularly notable performance by newcomer Liz Bjornstad as estranged wife Liz, the play’s one pillar of intelligence. Penta Swanson earned laughs as the wry secretary Monica. 

This production is sharp, with excellent timing. Director Fred Gorelick is the master artist here, leading the cast with skill, vision and creativity. It’s refreshing to see such a cohesive production. A Coward play can be words, words, words, so keeping characters moving adds a sense of urgency. Still, it would be nice for  the actors to sit down sometimes and stop fidgeting. They’re up, down, pulling out pillows, stealing cigarettes, wandering about with pipe wrenches, putting the pillows back — it’s exhausting. 

Noel Coward is a very funny man, and every few minutes some character spits out a priceless quip. Yet there are times when his urbane inanity wears thin, and the perfectly executed witty banter lulls the audience into a chuckling stupor. Let’s call that time Act Two. The actors have the audience back on board by the end of Act Three, but don’t go expecting excitement. Gorelick calls Present Laughter a “wonderful romp about growing old un-gracefully,” but it’s really more of an elegant glide about nothing at all.

Present Laughter continues at the VLT through Jan. 31.Tix at 344-7751.

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