Theater

Review: 'Present Laughter' a classic that has been around since 1939

Elizabeth Dawson (from left), Gabor Mark, Lori Rohr, Mary Kirkman, Dana Udelhoven, Madeline Franklin (in the door frame), Johnathon Horn, Nicole Netsen, Steve Connell, Blase Horn and David A. Hudson star in "Present Laughter," being performed by the Independent Players in Elgin.
Elizabeth Dawson (from left), Gabor Mark, Lori Rohr, Mary Kirkman, Dana Udelhoven, Madeline Franklin (in the door frame), Johnathon Horn, Nicole Netsen, Steve Connell, Blase Horn and David A. Hudson star in "Present Laughter," being performed by the Independent Players in Elgin.

Let’s categorize Noel Coward’s comedy, “Present Laughter,” as a theater bon mot and get that out of the way. The classic three-act play currently running through March 16 at the Elgin Arts Showcase won a Tony Award in 2017 for best play revival.

It’s been around since 1939, but it didn’t premiere until 1942, the early years of World War II and social change. Coward served in the war doing intelligence work until Winston Churchill told him that he could do more for the war effort by entertaining the troops and homefront. 

The plot of the play follows a few days in the life of a somewhat egotistical, very successful actor, Garry Essendine, as he prepares for a theatrical touring commitment to Africa (more like an escape from his foibles). Garry’s problems involve a predator seductress, his long-suffering secretary, an estrangement from his wife, a crazed playwright, a fawning debutante and, oh, yes, a midlife crisis.

Coward starred as Garry in the 1942 original run of “Present Laughter,” as well as in a 1958 revival. He adroitly confessed, “Garry Essendine is me.”

Productions have featured other notable actors: Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Victor Garber, Ian McKellan and Kevin Kline. So the part of the silky, dressing-gown star mustn’t be taken lightly. 

Director Don Haefliger has assembled a skilled, experienced ensemble of 11 strong actors. Although you need a scorecard to keep track of characters and tyrants, Haefliger has assured a well-paced, well-cast production. And Beth McDonald’s gorgeous period costumes add to the fluidity, although I wish there were a few more silk dressing gowns, particularly since Garry was known to possess at least 18.

Gabor Mark will enthrall you in his spot-on, brilliant portrayal of Garry. Looking more like a successful business agent than a matinee idol at first sight, Mark quickly convinces you otherwise. The amount of dialogue Mark has to deliver, his credible posturing, his vocal qualities and his extremely expressive face are flawless interpretations of an actor’s actor. Mark is astounding. 

Lori Rohr as Liz, Garry’s wife, is every second a graceful, ethereal beauty with a backbone of iron. Rohr is a poised and talented actress. Her complement is the well-known Madeline Franklin, a superb actress who portrays the arrogant predator seductress Joanna with great elan; it’s so very clear she’s enjoying her character to the utmost.

Elizabeth Dawson as Daphne, the debutante, is a fresh, energetic, winsome actress with great innocence. 

And yet applause also must be directed to Crystal Lake’s Steve Connell as Hugo and David Hudson as Morris. Both are attractive gentlemen; I wish Coward had given their characters more lines and time onstage. The ensemble also is supported by Nicole Netsen as the delightful cigarette-pinching Scandinavian maid; cheerful Jonathan Horn as the “rightio” valet, Fred; and Mary Kirkman as Lady Saltburn, who admirably stepped into the role during tech week.

As with any play, there are scene-stealers; in this case, actors Dana Udelhoven and Blasé Horn take that title. Udelhoven is a magnificently loyal secretary; she possesses a velvet voice, powerful and wry line delivery and subtle facials. Horn as peculiar, unhinged playwright Roland Maule is a definite crowd favorite and provides much of the comedic relief, if not farcical elements. 

So is “Present Laughter” a perceptive play? Always labeled as one of Coward’s last five great comedies, it addresses the aging process, mortality and human nature with astonishing craftiness and full Coward tongue-in-cheek mockery.

As British director Stephen Unwin said, “Noel Coward has an affection for people in all their failings;” he sees Coward as “something of an English [Anton Pavlovich] Chekhov with a huge heart.”

Certainly, the Independent Players’ 147th production showcases that affection, and it is well worth your time and laughter. If you’re curious as to the title, it comes from William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” – “present mirth hath present laughter.”

Present yourself for some guaranteed present laughter!

• Regina Belt-Daniels continues to do what she loves to do: teach, act, direct and write reviews. She is a retired Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 special educator, a retired Raue Center for the Arts board member and a 2018 Woman of Distinction. She serves on the boards of Right-Center-Left Production Company and It’s Showtime Huntley.  

WHAT: “Present Laughter” – two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission

WHEN: All shows at 7:30 p.m. through March 16

WHERE: Elgin Arts Showcase, eighth floor, 164 Division St., Elgin

COST: $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for students

INFO: 847-697-7374 or independentplayers.org

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