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.

Theatre Review: ‘Present Laughter’ by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at The Ellicott Creek Playhouse

The cast of “Present Laughter” by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at Ellicott Creek Playhouse.

If you follow along a certain creek meandering through Tonawanda, you’ll eventually happen upon the Ellicott Creek Playhouse.  It stands to reason, then, you would be following along Ellicott Creek. The whole thing gives you a new appreciation for the folks who name things like creeks and playhouses.  The straight-up wisdom and simplicity of it.

. . .they have brought together a mix of some veteran players and relative newcomers to their stage to give us a straight-up engaging, at times hilarious comedy. . .

The Ellicott Creek Playhouse is home to Niagara Regional Theater Guild (NRTG) which, in one form or another, has been in the practice of theater for 95 years.  It stands to reason, then, they have been doing something right for a very long time. One of those somethings is that the venue as a whole is a just right mix of welcoming community space and practiced trades-people of theater.  And springing forth from that one-something comes the NRTG’s current offering of Noel Coward’s play, “Present Laughter.” You could say NRTG brings the wisdom of experience.

The straight-up simplicity of it – “Present Laughter” was written in the 1930’s and made it to the theater in the early 1940’s.  It has been produced and brought to stage many times since, in many venues, right up to the near present on Broadway. So “Present Laughter” must be a thing that can provide audiences with laughter in the present, whenever the present.  

The present is current.  And the play, set in the 1930’s, follows several days and evenings in the life of English actor Garry Essendine (Marc Ruffino).  Essendine is an actor full at heart, given to dramatic flights of fancy and impromptu quotes from parts he’s played and not played in his efforts to maintain his hold on, and tame the mayhem of, the stream of players that surround him.  It is a life in which he is the center. His hold is precarious at times, making the action a romp through the challenges to Essendine’s self-absorption.

The challenges come in the forms of his maid, butler, secretary, and ex-wife to name a several – all adding to Essendine’s dismay and playing off his dramatic discord.  With the entire ensemble, Ruffino juggles very well a charm, pinache, desperation, and contrived melancholy to create a very pleasing, funny, and a just short–of-over the top character.  He carries a fine mix of sensibility, physical-facial comedic recognition to bring the audience along. He brings the audience into Essendine’s plight, at times, almost talking to them, then turns and plays it with just enough pomposity to remind the audience that Essendine is at least partly the cause of his own dismay.

If Ruffino’s character keeps the challenges to his vanity from becoming mayhem, Brian Tabak’s rendering of the infatuated and oddly bookish playwright, Roland Maule, presents a character that paces and preens over Essendine like some mad cat in heat, to the audience’s delight.  He brings another level of mayhem. So raucously comical was Tabak’s initial scene that when his character came to appear again, the audience responded with a hushed, “Uh-oh.”

The plot is predicated on Essendine keeping his world of acting, ego, and self-admiration together.  His inner circle of hired hands and theater cohorts help him keep it alive, because they do need him.  But when the lovely Joanna Lyppiatt (Lori Panaro) enters to try and seduce him into a love quadrangle, it threatens all of it.  Because Essendine’s band of characters do care for each other, they are not just colleagues.

The exchanges between Panaro and Ruffino are as well-matched as the characters themselves, both knowing what is at stake but both confident in their own natures.  Panaro’s performance mixes a perfect amount of confident class while with an alluring, un-sweet portion of a self-assured manipulator.

You can probably look up exactly what happens if you wish, as it’s likely that a lot has been written about this play.  But this production, taking place in the present, and put forth by a group that’s been around longer than the play itself, is a far more enjoyable experience.  In fact, it’s at times hilarious farce, at times cleverly written, and each turn is well played.

The NRTG production lends itself to all of this in its welcoming, unassuming gathering of people, and space that lends itself to an intimacy with the players.  The stage is surrounded on three sides by audience seating. And the actors are most often just above, just below, or right at eye level with the audience — a treat with all the non-verbal antics that fill the lines of the script.  The set is nicely done with all the necessary props needed to support the action, and with some clear effort to giving the 1930s English studio a touch of realism.

NRTG has been at it a long time.   With its latest production, they have brought together a mix of some veteran players and relative newcomers to their stage to give us a straight-up engaging, at times hilarious comedy, and they do it in a welcoming setting for any comedy loving, theater going, creek meandering patrons to enjoy.

Running Time: Approximately 2 Hours 20 minutes with two brief intermissions.

“Present Laughter” runs through March 25, 2018 and is presented at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse. For  more information, click here.