Cherie Messore Reviews

Theatre Review: ‘Present Laughter’ at Aurora Players

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The cast of “Present Laughter” at Aurora Players.

It’s a show with plenty of laughs, a romp of a plot, with a couple of little twists thrown in for the surprise factor.  It’s a light and frothy show by design, but as our leading man Garry says in the first act, “There’s something awfully sad about happiness, isn’t there?”

. . .a fine production of a venerable theatrical warhorse

Overall this is a fine production of a venerable theatrical warhorse. The set is beautiful (kudos to designer David Hall and his construction team) for creating the perfect pre-war, upscale home, complete with a marble (faux painted, perhaps) fireplace and elegant décor. (A note about this: there’s a special raffle to win the  velvet chaise on set, with proceeds to support a company member who is battling some difficult health challenges. I love the heartfelt way this theatre community supports its own.) There are only two real (and unfortunate) distractions: most cast members can’t credibly sustain their accents; and there are too many over-exaggerated facial expressions directed to the audience.  If this was a home movie, they’d be mugging for the camera. Often Coward plays call for this wink-and-a-nod gesture to the audience, almost folding the audience in to an inside joke, but two characters in particular did this to the extreme to unsatisfactory results. This is where director Monish Bhattacharyta should reign in his cast and their over the top enthusiasm. Or as ex-wife Liz says to main man Garry, “don’t be so affected, Garry.”

The setting is middle age actor Garry Essendine’s stylish London home. He’s preparing to tour the African continent and he is rife with anticipation. Marc Ruffino plays the man of hour.  He’s a suave smooth talker and Ruffino plays him to the hilt. Ruffino is almost too fast-talking, though: he’s not supposed to be a player, merely a charmer. Who is vain.  And beloved by all.  And who can’t stop looking in the mirror. Then there are all these women who keep throwing themselves at his well-heeled feet. First up is ingénue Daphne, with stars in her eyes as she meets a matinee idol old enough to be her papa. Then there’s Joanna, wife of one of his closest friends. And for some reason his ex-wife Liz is still hanging around. What’s an aging roué to do? None of this makes him happy, even when he mirror-checks himself frequently and gazes up at his portrait over the mantel.

And so we’re off. Garry has plenty of staff supporting his lavish lifestyle. The  household characters really shine in this show. Susan King is Garry’s secretary Monica Reed. She’s been loyal to him for 17 years and knows how to manage the details of his life. King does a solid job in this part:  her British accent is the only one that is consistently on point. Chris Biggie is Fred, Garry’s valet, and he’s chipper and sprightly enough. The standout is Aurora Players’ regular Susan Musial. She deadpans her way through all her scenes as Miss Erickson, the maid, with a cigarette dangling from her lips and a sly eye toward what’s happening in the house. Her name indicates she’s Scandinavian, but she sounds more  German. She’s a hoot to watch. Garry’s parade of ladies is led off by Kit Kuebler as Daphne Stillington, the 21 year old who conveniently misplaces her latchkey and has no choice but to spend the night in the spare room, in a pair of Garry’s pajamas. Catherine Burkhart is the unflappable ex-wife Liz. She is strong, she knows her ex husband and all his foibles and willingly accepts the bevy of sycophants who surround him. Burkhart nails the demeanor perfectly, despite her overly-mortified facial gestures: stop looking at the audience and focus on your castmates, please. Christopher Jackson is Roland Moule, the wild-haired young man at the door. If he’s identified as a wannabe playwright in this staging, I missed it and only know why he’s hanging on because I’ve seen the show a few times in other places. Jackson is frenetic and wacky, darting around the stage, a bit overplayed, and a little too boisterous. Tim Musial and Michael Breen are hysterical as Garry’s bumbling best friends, both besotted by the same woman, who – no surprise – is also throwing herself at Garry. Tara Potzler is Joanna, another would-be lover, a married woman who has a hard time taking no for an answer. Finally Tricia Hughes enters as Lady Saltburn, a wealthy supporter who wants her to put her ‘innocent’ starlet niece on Garry’s professional radar. Like Susan Musial, Hughes is a quiet standout. Her gestures and manners are the epitome of upscale British propriety: watch how so subtly, seductively strokes her fur boa. This is how Coward should be played. When perfectly nuanced, the intent silently screams. I love this. Speaking of her boa, the costumes were stunning, thanks to Kimberly Hicks’ good eye for scouting point-perfect period attire for the men and women.  Joanna’s act two gown and Monica’s tailored grey shirtwaist were enviable, along with Garry’s silky smoking jacket.

In short, this is a worthy effort that only needs some dialect coaching and directorial fine-tuning to make it soar.

One other point: the theatre experience extends beyond the stage. The Aurora Players organization is blessed with a fine theatre in a historic, 100 year old structure. It’s nicely outfitted with a designated ticketing area, concessions, comfy clean private facilities, and decent parking. This is a major win for community theatre overall and a point of pride for the Aurora Players and the group’s community stature. It also has an active and devoted volunteer team that produces a really well crafted printed program and other back office efficiencies.  The downside is that vintage seats aren’t always cozy and an overly heated space invites heavy audience eyelids during long shows. These and other fine points of patron experience should be given every consideration by the group’s volunteer leadership.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission (race to the lobby for a mulled cider which is a delicious, $1 bargain).

“Present Laughter” runs until March 24, 2019 and is presented at The Roycroft Pavilion in Hamlin Park in East Aurora. For more information, click here.