By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
As Cole Porter once told us, “Anything goes.” The English entertainer Noel Coward agreed with him, wearing silk polka-dot dressing gowns at all hours, constantly thrusting out his long pencil-thin cigarette holder, and dishing out similar quotes with abandon.
Coward’s comedy Present Laughter, directed by Don Alder and playing through December 13 at Lakewood Theater, is a screwball comedy from an earlier, but not more innocent, age: written in 1939, it was first produced in 1942, as war was raging, and it provided an escape from more sordid realities.
A different sort of battle is playing out onstage. Garry Essendine (Gary Powell) is a famous actor in the middle of a midlife crisis. His crisis isn’t the one we’re used to reading about in Psychology Today: rather than chasing a younger skirt and buying a convertible, he’s beset by a well-staffed flat whose doors never shut to romantic predators after him. His former wife, butler, maid, and secretary try to keep the seams of his chaotic life together so they can get a paycheck from him. Poor Garry never gets a break. He just wants to nap in his sleeping-mask, but someone’s always finding a way to get next to him. So the outrageous and twisted plot unfolds – anything goes, indeed– and we find ourselves laughing at, and for, Garry.
John Gerth’s set for Lakewood’s Present Laughter is a lush, well-thought-out opulence. From the beginning, we believe we’re watching a live picture of how we imagine the well-off of this former gilded and golden age lived: plush-pile high carpet, an organza circular sofa, the well-stocked bar and crystal decanters, Art Deco lighting fixtures, and the elevated stairway to Garry’s often occupied bedroom.
Powell, as the overtly theatrical Mr. Essendine, has the sweeping dramatic gestures of a 1930s star of the stage. He’s grounded, but floats ballet-like across the stage between comedic crises. He ruffles his chest like an incensed peacock as his suitors try to seduce him. At certain points his mannerisms and accent hint nicely at Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady – aloof on the surface, but suffering on the inside.
Olivia Shimkus plays Garry’s former wife, Liz, who keeps a maternal eye on him. She has the familiar accent of 1940s American films, the long-gone aristocratic emphasis on consonants from the Eastern Seaboard. She’s cool and demure in the face of Garry’s antics and the rest of his crowd. Together, they create a clear background upon which the other exaggerated characters can bounce.
Marilyn Stacey is Garry’s secretary, Monica, whom Coward based on his real-life secretary. Stacey acts at a hurried pace, giving her rebuffs with exact comic timing. She has the presence of an unmarried professional woman of the time, not as powerful or sexy as Shimkus, but a common-sense character upon whom Garry can bend an ear for moral support.
Melissa Whitney, as Joanna Lyppiatt, one of Garry’s pursuers, is a bubbly youth who gives a remarkable monologue at the end, punctuated with the pants and screams of ill-fated puppy love. She postures like a lovelorn girl, lost in the sea of true love, a sea that will probably change from day to day. Whitney had the audience in an uproar during Joanna’s Victorian-metered confession to Garry.
The elaborate costumes are a walking dream for anyone who loves the late 1930s. Costumer Clare Hungate-Hawk did wonderful work creating ensembles with exquisite details for each character. The production was eye candy all around.
Anything might go, but one thing is constant. At the beginning, middle, and end of the play, we know who Garry loves most: Garry. There’s never any doubt what his choice will be, but it’s a fun two hours watching him try to exit as a gentleman from the many people clawing for his attention. With a sigh of relief and surprise twist, we’re glad he can escape.
Present Laughter continues through December 13 at Lakewood Theater in Lake Oswego. Ticket and schedule information here.