Noël Coward’s 1940s period romance “Present Laughter” is as funny today as it was when Coward himself played the lead character, a character he admitted was a spoof on himself.
It is now playing at Harlequin Productions in Olympia with Aaron Lamb in the role Coward originated, directed by Linda Whitney and featuring a large cast of top-notch actors from Seattle and Olympia.
Garry Essendine (Lamb) is a rich and famous actor known for histrionic roles in romantic comedies, playing characters not unlike himself in plays not unlike “Present Laughter.” He is egotistical and constantly overacting with outsize dramatic gestures. He loves himself, and just about everyone else in the play loves him as well. Some, such as the would-be actress Daphne Stillington (Marianna de Fazio) and the would-be playwright Roland Maule (Xander Layden) love him worshipfully, obsessively. Others — such as his housekeeper, (Maggie Ferguson-Wagstaffe), valet (Dennis Rolly), long-suffering secretary Monica (Ann Flannigan) and even ex-wife Liz (Laura Hanson) — love him almost as a parent might love a mischievous child, while seeing right through his absurd posturing. Garry himself is going through a midlife crisis and at 42 is beginning to realize he’s middle-aged and can’t keep up the frantic pace of his life.
People keep showing up at his house unannounced and uninvited. Daphne tries to seduce him, as does Joanna (Helen Harvester), who is married to Garry’s best friend, Hugo (Bruce Haasl), and is having an affair with his agent, Morris (Gabriel McClelland). The only one who was invited is the crazed playwright, whom he kicks out but whom keeps coming back.
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Even the smallest roles, Rolly as the valet and Ferguson-Wagstaffe as the constantly smoking and shuffling housekeeper, are hilarious. The two of them get laughs simply from walking from one door to another. All of the other supporting actors are outstanding. The seduction scenes with Daphne first, then Joanna are precious. De Fazio is outstanding as the desperate Daphne, and Harvester is sleek and sensuous as Joanna (there is one scene in which she seduces Garry on top of an oversize ottoman in which her sensually slithering movements reminded me of similar movements she performed in “Mating Dance of the Werewolf,” also at Harlequin.
And that brings us to Lamb, the outsize star of this star-studded comedy. Lamb, recently seen as Richard Hannay in “The 39 Steps” and as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is an actor of amazing versatility. In this case, it is athletic pratfalls and histrionic posturing that bring the house down.
Also deserving of special notice is the gorgeous set designed by Jeannie Beirne, lighting by Amy Chisman and authentic costuming by Darren Mills.
The program lists the play as two hours and 20 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission, but opening night was somewhat longer. It could have run three hours and would not have seemed too long.
Check Alec Clayton’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 27.
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.
Information: 360-786-0151; harlequinproductions.org.