It’s amazing that Brian Bedford has never appeared in “Present Laughter” before now, having successfully made his mark in all the other major Coward plays on Broadway or at the Stratford Festival. But better late than never, as this sure-fire hit production proves. Its Stratford opening scored unanimous raves from the critics and is proving to be solid gold at the box office — a welcome relief for the SARS-struck festival.
With a knockout physical production by mainstem vets Michael Yeargan (sets) and Catherine Zuber (costumes), this show was obviously designed with a Gotham transfer in mind, possibly after an out-of-town visit at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, where Bedford has scored big in the past.
Play is a slickly manufactured star vehicle that Coward designed for himself. He wrote it in 1939, but because of World War II didn’t get to present it in London until 1943. Garry Essendine is the central figure, a thinly disguised portrait of Coward, surrounded by lovers, friends and sycophants. “Everyone worships me,” he complains, “it’s nauseating.”
Act one starts quietly as the comedic wheels are set in motion, but act two builds to a riot of farce and act three ties everything up nicely. Bedford has cut the text discreetly and wisely, and the pace never flags.
Memories of the flamboyance of both Frank Langella’s 1996 and George C. Scott’s ’82 Broadway performances as Garry will pale beside Bedford’s subtler approach. He knows calculated underkill is the way to make Coward work, and even when the character rants and raves, Bedford holds something in witty reserve.
His staging is equally savvy, with a good old-fashioned sense of how to stage moments for maximum impact. In this, he’s helped greatly by Yeargan’s set, which favors the elegant Chinoiserie Coward loved, while providing a variety of entrances and exits that allow the action to flow smoothly.
Zuber’s costumes are truly delicious, avoiding camp while slightly exaggerating period styles for theatrical effect. All the women are clothed in a devastatingly chic assortment of business suits and evening wear, while Bedford lounges around elegantly in a series of delectable dressing gowns, each yummier than the last.
Bedford’s supporting cast is almost totally drawn from the ranks of the Stratford Festival company, and many of them are good enough to join him on any journey this production might happen to take.
Seana McKenna is a masterpiece of quiet dignity as secretary Monica, bringing down the house with her deadpan delivery of countless Coward zingers. Domini Blythe plays Liz, Garry’s ex-wife, with a spun-sugar exterior that coats a titanium core: A loving woman, but don’t mess with her.
Brian Tree, as the amiable valet Fred, and Patricia Collins, as the stoic Swedish servant Miss Erikson, are both perfection, giving the kind of performances that repertory companies make possible. And Tim MacDonald, as the demented playwright Roland Maule, actually manages to score all his laughs and still create a real human being underneath — a duality central to the Bedford production.
Only Michelle Giroux as the ditzy deb Daphne and Sara Botsford as the predatory Joanna sometimes overplay their hands, while Shane Carty and Raymond O’Neill don’t make much of a pair of admittedly dullish parts.
But all in all, this is a production destined to generate laughter not just in the present Stratford season, but anywhere else Bedford chooses to take it.