The Pasadena Playhouse’s staging of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” is the kind of production that makes one think the angry young playwrights of the 1950s were right to despise Coward’s dressing-gown, hand-on-the-mantle comedies. Although the actors are equally at fault here, they are completely sabotaged before a single one of them gets his or her chance to mangle Coward. As soon as the lights go up, there it is: a disastrously misconceived, crass set — in this case, the London studio of one Garry Essendine, actor extraordinaire onstage and off. Or so we’re told.
Coward revealed in a 1972 interview, a good 30 years after he wrote “Present Laughter,” that Essendine “is me.” This particular studio by scenic designer John Iocavelli, however, could never have been Coward’s. Maybe Iacovelli read somewhere that the playwright had marvelous eclectic taste. Maybe. But that’s no excuse for the Bel Air garage sale that stuns and burns the eye at the Pasadena Playhouse: gold art-deco banisters upstage, a wicker love seat downstage, a couple of discarded theater seats thrown in between and a lot of decaying — Medieval, perhaps — tapestries on the walls. This is a new one: Noel Coward as children’s theater.
Much to Randy Gardell’s credit, his subdued, stylish costumes are totally out of place here. The set is so overwhelmingly ugly it takes on a life of its own, which is more than one can say for Richard Seyd’s direction of his principals.
Essendine may be a peacock, but he’s no peacock with his head stuck in a champagne ice bucket. He’s egotistical, vain and totally self-centered, as everybody keeps reminding him, because he has to be. Everybody’s livelihood — from his team of producers to his wife and secretary’s — depends on it.
The problem is that Robert Curtis Brown plays Garry Essendine as egotistical, vain and self-centered. There’s no room left for him to be “charming” and “enchanting.” If Essendine isn’t those things — not to mention “the great, glorious sun” — then why would anyone bother watching him onstage? (Over the course of the play’s 2-1/2 hours, it’s a question that bears repeating.) Brown plays Essendine like the epicene Jack Benny — chin searching for something offstage, an occasional heave of the chest, hand on the hip — at least he never reaches for the mantle — and then a slow, deliberate folding of the arms to deliver a punch line.
Of course, Coward didn’t write lines in search of a good punch. On this score, Brown has a little more finesse at tossing them off than does the robotic Fiona Hughes. As Essendine’s wife and chief caretaker, she has a gesture up her faux Dior sleeve to accompany every word — sometimes every syllable.
In the pivotal role of Joanna Lyppiatt, Kaitlin Hopkins also falls into this “Mad About You” approach to Coward. At least she is appropriately seductive. Being the wife of one of Essendine’s producers, she has to negotiate an affair with the other producer, as well as seduce the star himself. As the major threat to Essendine’s overextended extended family of “staunch, loyal satellites,” she does major battle with Brown and Hughes, neither of whom is much up for the challenge — even though the play tells us otherwise.
Audrie Neenan, Gloria Dorson and Gerald Emerick do better, respectively, as the secretary and two servants. But then they’re on the stage less. Dorson doubles up to play an unwanted visitor, the Lady Saltburn, and gives a very nice impersonation of Joan Plowright. Better than very nice is Scott Lowell’s three-scene turn as Roland Maule, the nutcase writer who does an emotional flip-flop over Essendine, threatening to follow him to the ends of the earth just to be near him always. Lowell proves that talent is charm, although a little less hopping around on the furniture would help the performance, not to mention the upholstery.
In last season’s Broadway production of “Present Laughter,” directed by Scott Elliott and starring the magnetic Frank Langella, the Maule character had an extended full-frontal nude scene. Some critics were horrified that Coward’s real intentions had somehow been outed. As he wrote it, “Present Laughter” seems to imply that asexuality is preferred to the love that dare not show its face onstage.
“I shall be perfectly content to go to bed with an apple and a good book!” Essendine proclaims near the end of the play after practically everyone has tried to have him. But then, considering the shambles of this production, Lowell is lucky indeed to keep his clothes right where they are.