Laughs plentiful in Pear Theatre's 'Present Laughter'

1939 Noël Coward farce explores the madcap life of an actor

Laughs are available by the bushelful in the Pear Theatre production of Noël Coward's "Present Laughter," a frantic farce written and set in 1939 and based fairly strongly on Coward's own life.

Director Walter M. Mayes cleverly allows some cast members to go loudly over the top while keeping most of the cast grounded in something like British reserve. The mix helps this production deliver most of the laughs Coward intended.

Charles Woodson Parker is funny as Garry Essendine, a popular actor who is beset by a complicated web of circumstances as he is preparing for a trip to Africa, and quietly terrified by his approaching 40th birthday. Essendine's life is madness and it makes for a fun play. As a performer, Parker sometimes shows a charming likeness to Hugh Grant.

There are two aggressive women who want to bed Essendine, an absolutely crazy would-be playwright who hounds him, and his secretary, maid, valet and estranged wife to deal with. Not to mention his two business partners, one of whom is married to one of the women who wants to bed him and the other who is already having an affair with her. Plus, a well-heeled member of British nobility who is the mother of the other lustful woman.

The play opens with Jennifer Chapman as Daphne Stillington emerging from Essendine's guest room. She spent the night, she explains, because she had lost her latch key. This is not a new phenomenon to the Swedish maid, the valet or to Essendine's longtime secretary.

Monica Cappuccini is hilarious as the maid, Miss Erikson, with an omnipresent cigarette dangling from her lip, her stockings rolled down around her ankles and a constantly moving duster brush. Tyler Pardini is simperingly amused and amusing as the valet, Fred. Caitlin Papp is excellent as the officious, aggravated and patient secretary Monica.

Alex Draa is annoyingly loud as would-be playwright Roland Maule, but it works, especially as the play develops in madcap madness.

Kristin Walter shows up as Liz, the estranged wife, and relates her worry that Essendine's friend Morris is having an affair with Henry's wife, Joanna. Essendine tries to find the truth, but fails.

David Boyll as Henry and John Stephen King as Morris have just the right looks for their roles as the business partners, and deliver their lines well.

Damaris Divito shows up with a great performance as the femme fatale Joanna. She successfully seduces Essendine, and who can blame him?

Pretty much everybody, actually. Act II, Scene 2, is completely frantic, as Essendine's staff discovers Joanna, who uses the latch-key excuse to no avail. While everybody is in a panic, and some actually faint or otherwise hit the floor, Maule is running around, and the whole thing gets pretty crazy. Act III continues the insanity.

Thanks to a huge and handsome set designed by Pear Artistic Director Elizabeth Kruse Craig, there are lots of doors and stairs by which actors may come and go. Lighting by Meghan Souther adds a lovely bit of warmth to the goings on (except for one missed cue, when dialogue started in the dark). Kathleen O'Brien's costumes are charming and time-correct, although some of the dresses could use ironing.

Some cavils: The flow of this show is not crisp. At times it sort of lumbers along, partly because of Coward's script, partly because the cast occasionally does not have the timing right. Everybody speaks in pretty good English accents, but only Barbara Heninger as Lady Saltburn really manages what the British call the "plummy accents" of the upper class. And the scene wherein Joanna seduces Essentine could use a different blocking. He kind of just flops on top of her on the chaise lounge and it isn't funny or sexy.

Still, a fun and ambitious show for the tiny Pear.

Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

What: "Present Laughter."

Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.

When: Through June 30 (showtimes vary).

Cost: $35.

Info: The Pear.

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