It's What's Inside

"There's something awfully sad about happiness, isn't there?" says the leading man in Noel Coward's bubbly 1939 comedy Present Laughter. Oh, truer words, dahling, truer words.

Happy to report then that it's all smiles in Theatre Three's smartly acted dollop of Coward froth. There are things that will make you wince about this production — costumes, shoes, wigs, props, furniture — but Coward's showers of bon mots help wash away the sins of most of the design transgressions.

The story is biographical, a pleasant diversion from our own Dickensian sorrows. It's Coward's crafting of a busy farce based on his life as a bon vivant. What fun he must have had, if his love affairs were anything like the exhausting around-the-clock gambols of his alter ego in the play, Garry Essendine (played at T3 by handsome devil Gregory Lush).

Garry's a London actor facing a career dilemma. Over 40, he's too old to play Peer Gynt, but he's not about to admit to himself, nor anyone else, that he's no longer ingénue-worthy. He's certainly attractive enough to younger admirers to have developed a surefire ritual for dismissing his numerous one-night stands. Off they go to the spare room post-conquest, while he retires upstairs. Leave it to butler Fred (nicely played with a working-class English accent by Brandon J. Murphy) and the imperious secretary (Arianna Movassagh, doing yet another of her deadpan bits) to make pleasant excuses in the morning as they shuffle Garry's latest lover out the front door.

Coward was cagey about Garry's sexuality for his audience in 1939. Now it's easy to see that Garry's a gay old peacock, and Lush plays him that way, which is fine. Swanning up and down the multilevel stage, Lush works his silk dressing gown, flapping his sleeves to keep everyone at safe distances. His Garry is the nucleus of the chaos, but he's always the calmest one in the room simply because he's bored by adulation. Whiny debutante (Jad Saxton) clinging to Garry's trousers? Pish tosh. Hot-to-trot married lady (Lisa-Gabrielle Greene) pawing at his neck? Yawn. And what's Garry to do with a young budding playwright (Sam Swanson) from "Uckfield" who's always underfoot, expressing his undying devotion? To the spare room!

Present Laughter's leading lady is luminous redhead Lydia Mackay, playing Garry's ex-wife Liz. Their relationship as boon companions has continued long after the divorce, with her serving as Garry's protector and defender. They are clearly soulmates, no matter whom Garry's taking to bed. He's lonely without her and it's her he rings up to help him out of awkward post-coital jams. Coward depicts Garry and his retinue as living a continuous, madcap rom-com in which someone's always in pajamas or pushing the doorbell or reaching for a glass of sherry.

Director Bruce Coleman has a great cast here. They manage English accents admirably, even if they do slip up and pronounce "valet" to rhyme with "ballet" instead of "mallet." They balance the broad comedy divinely, particularly Lush, who is a little too young to play Garry but who wears the character's soigné elegance as comfortably as his white tie and tails. He and Mackay make delicious acting partners; she's the yin to his yang. Dallas theater newcomer Sam Swanson, playing the over-eager playwright in love with Garry, brings a fully formed and wildly funny character into the room from his first appearance and keeps making surprising moves every moment he's onstage. Playing two roles, a psychic cook and a dowager countess, Sherry Etzel comes up with nutty voices and snappy timing for each.

Coleman's lucky to have found an ensemble worthy of the verbal demands of the talky play, which is one of Coward's gems, because he has missed (or ignored) many of the built-in farcical elements. Those doorbell interruptions, for example. For every ding-dong who rings at Garry's door, there should be some punctuation in the action, some repeated gesture, something that guarantees a laugh and anticipates the entrance of another intruder into Garry's domain. Doesn't happen on the T3 stage. The ringing phones and doorbell chimes just stop the play with laugh-killing moments of silence.

And the design of the show — lordy, lordy. Coleman also did the clothes and he eschews any suggestion of the stylish Deco looks of the 1930s, drawing his ladies' dresses from some new period of ugliness in which hemlines hang unevenly, zippers are sewn in snaking swerves, patterns are mismatched and every ensemble is cinched in at the waist with an elastic Walmart belt. It takes effort to make a beauty like Lydia Mackay look a hot mess and Coleman's done his best to do just that. He has Greene, another pretty lady, dragging about 27 yards of ghastly blue satin off the side of her ill-fitting gown. It looks like she's smuggling a Munchkin under there. Adorable little Jad Saxton, whose heart-shaped face and bowed red lips are perfect for a period comedy, peers out from under a shiny flip-ended wig that rests heavily on her head, like a napping opossum.

No one wears the right shoes, either. Even in his tux (clip-on tie clearly visible), Lush's Garry is shod in cheap, unshined clodhoppers. In one scene, four of the men, including the butler, sport the same awful double-breasted pinstriped suit. If Coleman couldn't see how terrible his actors looked in these costumes the first time they tried them on, he needs his eyes checked.

Actors are nothing but "tinsel and sawdust," wrote Noel Coward in Present Laughter. And scratch away the phony tinsel, quipped actor-pianist-raconteur Oscar Levant around the same time, and you'll find the real tinsel underneath. But it should always be pretty tinsel, shouldn't it? Tinsel is happy. Sawdust is sad.

Theatre Arlington's overwrought version of Carol Burnett's biographical Hollywood Arms is a different kettle of dead fish. Here, the dark blocks out the light in a retelling of the beloved TV comedian's early days living with her harridan of a grandma (played by Trich Zaitoon). As Burnett frames it in the play (co-written with her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton), she survived a Depression Era upbringing that rivaled Oliver Twist's childhood for poverty and neglect. Seeing it acted out by a pigtailed moppet (Ingrid Fease), on a set (by Bob Lavallee) resembling Ray Milland's digs in Lost Weekend, will send you home in a deep, deep funk. If you can stick with the play past the interminable first act, you might muster a little grin out of one short burst of silliness toward the end. That's when the college-age Carol, called Helen in the play (and played by Mikaela Krantz), re-enacts an entire Betty Grable movie all by herself. But the little skit is the only respite in two and a half long hours of withering despair.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner