Austin Shakespeare’s Present Laughter

Lifted by wonderful performances, this take on the Noël Coward backstage comedy is a delight to watch

Kara Bliss (l) and Marc Pouhé (Photo by Bruce Malone)

No matter the role, it cannot be argued that the main job of an actor is to commit. And no one commits more fully than Garry Essendine. A veteran of the stage, Essendine has mastered the art of believability to such a degree that he has begun taking his work (and every willing lady he comes across) home with him. To this most apt of players, all the world's a stage littered with cigarettes, fine liquor, forgotten latchkeys, and wanton women.

Noël Coward's Present Laughter opens with Mr. Essendine's latest (and perhaps youngest) conquest, one Daphne Stillington, traipsing through his lavish living room. As the wide-eyed debutante (played by Corinna Browning) sits down to coffee and orange juice, we begin to deduce, through the actions of Mr. Essendine's staff, that this walk of shame is not an isolated incident.

And indeed, it is not. Garry's multiple indiscretions are piling up, and the onus falls on his trusty house help, his snarky secretary, and his estranged wife to clean up his myriad messes. As his admirers multiply and alibis start to unravel, Essendine finds himself a dog dragged ever closer to his proverbial day. Under incredible pressure, he decides honesty is his only option. But there's a problem: When Garry Essendine finally stops acting and starts speaking in earnest, no one believes him.

Austin Shakespeare's take on this comedy classic features some truly wonderful performances. As Garry Essendine, Marc Pouhé embodies commitment. His combination of flawlessly executed comic timing, seamless transitions from one big emotion to another, and willingness to give himself fully to each moment of the story showcases his talent superbly. Pouhé, much like Garry Essendine, is an actor's actor, and his performance is one that Coward (who originated the role) would be proud of. Babs George carries herself with the strength, grace, and ease of a 1940s screen siren. In Liz Essendine, she has created a smart, savvy, quick-witted, and committed companion to Garry.

Ironically, in certain moments, some of the performers in Present Laughter miss the mark as far as commitment goes. Haphazard smoking, inconsistent accent work, and careless stage action can remove one, albeit temporarily, from the story at hand. Furthermore, while Coward's dialogue is best served at a brisk clip, some of the lines are thrown at the audience so quickly that they are lost. However, despite these few directorial hiccups, the cast recovers quickly, and overall the show is a delight to watch.

From beginning to end, Present Laughter is an exploration of show business, success, and the absurd lengths someone will go to in order to get what they want and get away scot-free. Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella and Austin Shakespeare have created a pleasant evening of theatre that you should absolutely commit to see.

Present Laughter

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through Dec. 4
Running time: 2 hr., 45 min.
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Austin Shakespeare, Ann Ciccolella, Marc Pouhé, Babs George, Noël Coward

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