I’ve often said, “The difference between gay men and British men is more one of degree than of kind.” If you want an ideal exponent of what that means, look no further than Present Laughter, the current mainstage production (and 51st season opener) at Theatre 3. Written by Noel Coward in 1938, it embodies the arch but randy character of English drawing room comedies: Tons of sophisticates mincing around in extravagant clothes, smoking too much, sleeping with each other and making catty remarks. It might as well be brunch in Cedar Springs.
In fact, that’s what’s really missing from this production: A contemporary feel. Ditch the 1938 setting, the European accents and all the dahhhlings and “quites and rah-thers; move it to 1987, set it in Chelsea and throw in a few totallys and shoulder pads, and you still have a saucy period piece but without all the baggage of datedness. (Look closely, and the play is as gay as a weekend on Fire Island … if only it could let loose from the social mores of its era.)
It would work, too, because Coward — for all his stiff-upper-lipness and pre-war British pluck — was a racy playwright in his day, and sometimes it’s jarring to read between the lines and see what’s actually going on. Present Laughter concerns famous stage actor Garry Essendine (Gregory Lush) and his inappropriate tomcatting with a teenaged nymphette and a married socialite (Lisa-Gabrielle Green) while still technically married to his estranged wife (Lydia Mackay), who nevertheless drops in on a daily basis. There’s more screwing going on off-stage here than at a Stanley Tools factory.
Sex is a driving force for Coward’s plots and always has been; it’s interesting arriving at the insights he does and seeing how modern they still seem, such as Garry’s vanity about ageing and from matinee idol to middle aged icon. He was a gay man when men couldn’t be gay, at least onstage, and yet audiences would watch it play out, down to his fag-hag assistant Monica (Arianna Movassagh), a Della Street-Miss Moneypenny who somehow holds his life together.
Although Theatre 3 does not update the setting or the quaint turns of phrase, director Bruce Coleman did at least have to sense to cast Lush, Mackay and Movassagh, three actors who are as effortless at this kind of whip-smart wordplay and any you could find. Lush especially is an excellent surrogate for Coward himself, his long, Bob Hope-like nose standing in as a rapier as he thrusts and parries his barbs with clarity and style. Lush played Henry Higgins in Theatre 3’s production of Pygmalion once, and you see the similarities in the characters — even in the overall plays themselves.
In fact, points of Present Laughter seem like a combo of My Fair Lady and Deathtrap, only Coward doesn’t follow a simple format. The plot is rangy and unfocussed, a sort of self-reflective idyll on Coward himself as he moved from boy wonder to theater establishment. It’s post-modern in that way, a sex romp about how stale and pointless sex romps are.
But Coleman doesn’t mine as many laughs out of the comedy as he could; while not an out-right farce, it has elements of one that could be tightened with more imaginative staging (a weird elevated set throws off the speed of some entrances and exits). It’s left to the actors (including Sherry Etzel affecting two outrageous accents for two characters) to ratchet up the madcappery. It’s a comedy in search of a purpose.