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Classic Coward Play is at TheatreWorks

By Jaime Ferris, Housatonic Times


In a holiday season strained by a still-struggling economy and the stresses of everyday life only magnified by the season itself, we all need a break from it all—and an entertaining one at that. Fortunately, TheatreWorks New Milford's production of legendary playwright Noël Coward's classic comedy of manners, "Present Laughter," under the direction of Beth Bonnabeau, is the perfect antidote to the holiday blues. With light-hearted wit and a hearty dose of laughter from "The Master," it is a cheeky drawing room comedy that doesn't disappoint.

As Ms. Bonnabeau notes, "It's like a fizzy glass of champagne that keeps tickling your nose and making you laugh."

Though the show is set in 1946 London—the Great Depression was over, but the world was still recovering from World War II—what makes "Present Laughter" so special is Coward's brilliant writing. When it was first staged in the U.S., The New York Times called it "sharp, withering, and funny," and it hasn't lost that quality even now, more than 70 years later. This story stands the tests of time, due to Coward's extraordinary skill as a playwright. But following in the playwright's footsteps, Ms. Bonnabeau has created a virtuoso production for the TheatreWorks stage, with each scene building upon the last, and each player becoming more real and bigger than life as the story progresses throughout the evening.

This classic comedy centers on Garry Essendine (an incredibly talented Jonathan Jacobson), a popular idol of the British stage who is overly pampered and all too used to getting his way. He is preparing for an extended tour in Africa with his devoted secretary, Monica (Janice Connor), which seems simple enough. The only problem is, Garry constantly gets himself into trouble, particularly when women keep "losing their latchkeys."

His plans are complicated first by Daphne (Gloria Antonios), a beautiful stage-struck ingénue 20 years his junior, and a young, preposterously enthusiastic aspiring playwright, Roland Maule (Chris Bolster), who insists on earning Garry's attentions. Add to the mix Garry's wife, Liz (Robyn Maitland), his agents Morris (J. Scott Williams) and Hugo (Tony Saracino) and numerous admirers, including his agent's wife, Joanna (LuAnn Leonard), and Garry finds it difficult to escape a fate that quickly spirals out of control into an uproarious, farcical, game of cat-and-mouse. An extra dose of wit delivered by Miss O'Doyle (Jacky Saulnier), Garry's housekeeper, and Fred (Glenn R. Couture), his butler, soon persuades us that timing means everything—and Ms. Saulnier and Mr. Couture nail it every time.

A show is only as good as the sum of its parts, and Ms. Bonnabeau has done a brilliant job in that department. Of particular note is Ms. Connor, who is absolutely audacious as Garry's longtime secretary, Monica, a straight-forward woman who has seen it all while working for Garry.

She also has to deal with the chaos that ensues during the production—and there is quite a lot to deal with, between Garry's easily flustered agent, Morris, played spectacularly by Mr. Williams, the good-natured Hugo and his untamable wife, Joanna (a brilliant turn by Ms. Leonard, making a return to the TheatreWorks stage), who fears she is trapped in a "French farce."

Also returning to the TheatreWorks boards is Ms. Maitland as Garry's estranged wife Liz, showing once again that she has superb acting chops in both dramatic roles and outrageous comedies. Her performance is wholly sincere and, when things get interesting, she is such fun to watch on stage.

Ms. Antonios is wonderfully cast as the beautiful, albeit dim, ingénue Daphne, who sets the bar high for laughs early in the show. But as far as crazy is concerned, she is only topped by Mr. Bolster, making his TheatreWorks debut as Roland Maule, an aspiring playwright who cares a great deal for Garry. It is a shame neither ever really finds what they are looking for—or have they, in the end, under a full moon?

But for the show to really work, the director had to find a very Coward-esque actor, and Ms. Bonnabeau found one in Jonathan Jacobson. When Coward wrote "Present Laughter," he purposely based the lead character, Garry Essendine, on himself, and as an actor long before he took to writing, Coward even stepped into the larger-than-life role when his play first opened in the United Kingdom. Over the years, Broadway productions have featured such notables as George C. Scott (1982), Frank Langella (1996), and Victor Garber (2010) in the demanding lead role, so one can only imagine how intimidating an endeavor taking on this role must have been. Mr. Jacobson, who is also making his TheatreWorks debut, rose to the challenge—and what a smashing debut he has had. A veteran of theater, he inhabits the role of an actor who is always on stage. Who, exactly, is the real Garry Essendine, one might wonder? We may never know, but Mr. Jacobson is positively brilliant on stage. He truly commands the spotlight.

All of this farcical fun takes place on an impressive two-story set designed by Mr. Couture, with a grand staircase and gorgeous gold foil accents on the walls, and beautiful period costumes by Susan Pettibone, who whisks us away to the mid-1940s—right down to Garry's elegant silk dressing robes.

As one character notes in the course of the action, there is nothing that will "help people or make them think" in "Present Laughter," but that is exactly what we need this time of year. "Present Laughter" is one hilarious evening of theater that will make audiences howl. This is not a show you want to miss.

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