It's a delightful evening of 'Laughter' Theater review

July 18, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" is in many ways a play about overacting. The protagonist, a stage idol named Garry Essendine, is "on" so much of the time, he can no longer distinguish between his on-stage and off-stage personae.

At Olney Theatre Center, where director John Going has staged a precisely paced production, even Coward's trademark dressing gowns overact. They call attention to themselves with leopard-print collars and cuffs or a hot tropical print on red silk.

Still, a degree of modulation is necessary to allow Garry's histrionics to build. And Going, who has shown an affinity for Coward in such past Olney productions as "Fallen Angels" and )) "Design for Living," has just the right suave, controlled touch.

Coward had a tendency to write himself into his plays, and nowhere is his presence more evident than in the character of Garry. A star of romantic comedies, Garry is played by balding, mustachioed Tony Rizzoli as a middle-aged leading man who exudes a mixture of weary sophistication and childlike egocentricity -- a delicate combination coated with enough charm to make us believe that everyone Garry meets falls in love with him.

There's the starry-eyed debutante (Holly Twyford), the latest in a long line of young ladies who have lost their latchkeys and had to spend the night. There's the hysterically intense young playwright who arrives to berate Garry and ends up a fawning acolyte (Sean Arbuckle, in a performance that suggests his character's attraction to Garry is more than intellectual). There's Garry's estranged wife, who adores him but can't live with him (played by Carole Healy as both shrewd and smooth). And there's the vampish wife of one of his best friends; alluringly portrayed by Hope Chernov, this temptress is so predatory, Garry shields himself with throw pillows when she traps him on the sofa.

The use of these pillows is exactly the type of clever touch Going brings to the production. Indeed, this scene is the witty, debonair high point of the evening; the brittle, serpent-tongued repartee is so flawlessly delivered, it is reminiscent of Coward's masterpiece, "Private Lives."

Going also knows when to inject a bit of physical hyperbole so that it inflates -- but never quite bursts -- the delicate bubble of Coward's writing. Informed that he must honor his appointment with a dowager and her niece, Rizzoli's Garry stamps his foot and bellows, "No!" with the fervor of a spoiled 5-year-old. Watching all hell break loose in the subsequent scene, Arbuckle's manically smitten young playwright leaps on top of the grand piano in glee.

Because style is so important in Coward's plays, it's easy to assume they're all about surface, with no substance underneath. But in "Present Laughter," Coward lambastes the follies of celebrity worship and the cult of youth. These themes, however, don't come across unless the production accurately conveys Coward's distinctive style. Going has that down pat, and so does James Wolk's elegant, two-story, art-deco set design. But aside from the above example of the two dressing gowns, costume designer Marianne Krostynne misses the mark; her women's clothing is so unbecoming, it verges on dowdy.

"Technique is terribly important," Garry says, gallantly lighting a lady's cigarette. "Present Laughter" -- and this mostly sleek production -- acknowledges that importance, while also making Coward's point that technique isn't everything. There's a heart beating underneath all the sparkling gloss, and it beats with delight.

'Present Laughter'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays, July 25 and Aug. 8. Through Aug. 9

Tickets: $25-$32

Call: 301-924-3400

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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