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'Present Laughter': Babes in the Words

Theater review: Despite a few bright spots, San Clemente production falls flat without the necessary Coward complement of style, wit and repartee.

June 17, 1998|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a point in Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" when Garry Essendine, the comedy's oh-so-urbane central figure, gazes around his London home and jadedly refers to its "glittering veneer."

The moment gives you pause in the San Clemente Community Theatre production simply because the set that designer Malcolm Silver has raised on the small Cabrillo Playhouse stage isn't all that fancy. Garry's digs are OK but not glittering--hardly classy enough for what Coward had in mind.

The same can be said for the entire production.

Under Robert Berman's direction, the show is neither bold nor stylish. And without style and more style, Coward's plays turn flat, like champagne left out overnight.

As with all of Coward's comedies, "Present Laughter" doesn't have much of a plot. It's the people that interest us, what they mean to each other, how they interact. We're supposed to be most charmed (and infuriated) by Garry (Michael Bielitz), a famous but aging actor with the charisma to attract even the most fickle women.

They just can't stay away, and when we first meet Garry, it's after silly, pretty and very young Daphne (Natasha Corich) has gushed about him over and over. She has a right to, having enjoyed a night in his arms. But she's expecting more from a relationship that everyone else can see is going nowhere. That's how Garry is: too busy wooing women to worry about spending serious time with them.

Anyway, he has his steady, sensible wife, Liz (Janet Lee), to help straighten out his messes, even if she's a reluctant sidekick. Also prowling through Garry and Liz's world is Joanna (Kerene Cogan), the predatory wife of Garry's lawyer, and assorted other characters, including Roland (Aaron Orr), a spacey playwright.

The play's strolling tempo turns quicker, more excitable as it nears the finale, when Garry prepares to leave for an acting gig in Africa. Who will go and who will be left behind? That's about as involved as "Present Laughter" gets, but it's the repartee that pulls you in.

*

Coward once said Garry was his favorite character in this play because any actor who portrays him is rarely far from center-stage and easily grabs all the attention. Bielitz seems to know this is a role for a ham and cranks everything up, sometimes with amusing results. But ultimately, it's a redundant performance that doesn't draw us closely to Garry or reveal his curious magnetism.

Lee fares the best; her Liz is the smartest of the bunch and quietly funny because of it. The rest of the cast seems lost a good deal of the time, trying to navigate Coward's ticklish, self-conscious situations and language.

Other little things also undermine this show. As should the less-than-ritzy set, the costumes (uncredited) should be more splendiferous. With Coward, it's often the surfaces--the more opulent the better--that count for so much.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Present Laughter," Cabrillo Playhouse, 202 Avenida Cabrillo, San Clemente. 8 p.m. today-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $12. Ends Sunday. (949) 492-0465. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Natasha Corich: Daphne

Bev Brezden-Toney: Miss Erickson

Scott Haring: Fred

Barbara Hollis: Monica

Michael Bielitz: Garry

Janet Lee: Liz

Aaron Orr: Roland

Bruce Alexander: Morris

Mike Turner: Hugo

Kerene Cogan: Joanna

A San Clemente Community Theatre production of Noel Coward's comedy. Directed by Robert Berman. Set: Malcolm Silver. Lighting: Ed HowieQ. Stage manager: David Semegi.

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