First Rate PRESENT LAUGHTER at Two River

by Dennis Dougherty

Michael Cumpsty (Garry Essendine), Cole Escola (Roland Maule) and Veanne Cox (Monica) in Noël Coward’s PRESENT LAUGHTER, running at Two River Theater through June 23. (Photo credit: Michal Daniel)

“Why,” the legendary writer Noel Coward once asked, “am I always expected to wear a dressing-gown, smoke cigarettes in a long holder and say ‘Darling, how wonderful’?”

The answer is quite simple: that is the cultivated, urbane and witty persona he established for himself…and the characters he created; through which he often placed himself front and center in plays and revues.

With all due respect to Coward and the sparkling star turn he “modestly” wrote for himself in PRESENT LAUGHTER (and to the effervescent actor Michael Cumpsty who plays the part in this new staging), Two River Theater Company’s production of the 1939 farce is enlivened most especially by the bevy of dazzling actresses working in support of the central role, maturing British matinee idol Garry Essendine.

Over the course of two weeks or so in 1938, the self-obsessed Garry prepares for a theatrical tour of Africa as he faces his own brand of mid-life crisis (since he’s recently turned “40”–ish and feels that “life is passing him by”). Of course, a smooth path to departure is frustrated by complicated relationships with a variety of women, infidelities, and an overly-eager & self-appointed protégé, among other things.

At the center of it all is Cumpsty as Garry. He creates a bright, broad and energetic protagonist, smartly exaggerating the character’s actorly excesses. There are moments when the script’s Coward-like persona does not fit naturally, but Cumpsty finds the comedy in his own way, as well as the genuine heart in Garry’s moments of introspection or the fire in his rage.

Veanne Cox (Monica) and Kaitlin Hopkins (Liz) in Noël Coward’s PRESENT LAUGHTER, running at Two River Theater through June 23. (Photo credit: Michal Daniel)

But, as noted previously and without any slight to Mr. Cumpsty, it is the women who shine here, particularly three acclaimed New York theatre favorites.

Veanne Cox is a dream as Garry’s efficient and long-suffering secretary, Monica. She brings both bite and warmth to the role, delivering sarcasm and understanding with an equally deft touch. Kaitlin Hopkins is exquisite as Liz Essendine, perfectly embodying Garry’s beautiful, strong-willed, practical and loving – but estranged – wife. Camille Saviola finds humor in every movement as Garry’s housekeeper, Miss Erikson. She elicits laughter simply by walking across the room, conversing with a precarious cigarette dangling from her lips, or fluffing pillows.

As Joanna, the glamorous wife of Garry’s producer, Leighton Bryan is wonderfully sharp, brittle and seductive. Hayley Treider is a gloriously silly ingénue as Garry’s latest young admirer, Daphne; and Robin Moseley is just right as a regal grand dame and Daphne’s aunt.

Among the men, Richard Hollis scores as a refreshingly cheeky valet, always ready with a smirk, a wink or a roll of his eyes; James Riordan is a humorous sad sack as Garry’s romantically-troubled manager, Morris; and Mark Capri is an appropriately stalwart Hugo, Joanna’s husband.

As Roland Maule, the eager young writer who attempts to force his way into Garry’s inner circle, Cole Escola is vibrant and enthusiastic but a bit too over-done.

Michael Cumpsty (Garry Essendine), seated at center, with members of the company in Noël Coward’s PRESENT LAUGHTER, running at Two River Theater through June 23. From left: James Riordan, Richard Hollis Michael Cumpsty, Kaitlin Hopkins, Mark Capri, Cole Escola, and Veanne Cox. (Photo credit: Michal Daniel)

Director David Lee (acclaimed as a director, writer and/or producer behind such seminal television comedies as Cheers, Frasier, The Jeffersons and Everybody Loves Raymond) guides his cast with a skilled sense of pacing, intention and comic timing. A wonderful touch is the musical interludes that open each scene, with characters singing verses from Coward’s own composition, “Mad About the Boy,” with a variety of comic intonations (Saviola’s take on this song is a wonder and Capri provides a comically droll interpretation). The tone of the production (in terms of the material’s stylistic elements and a few rather divergent acting styles) is occasionally inconsistent, but the story is played with charm and humor and panache.

In bringing life to the world these characters inhabit, the creative team is first rate. Scenic designer Tony Straiges has produced an Art Deco masterpiece for Garry’s studio; Tilly Grimes’ costumes perfectly capture the period, while also defining the characters; and Rui Rita’s lighting design effectively adds the right sense of mood and atmosphere.

by Noel Coward
Directed by David Lee
June 1 – June 30, 2013
Two River Theater Company
21 Bridge Avenue
Red Bank, NJ

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1 comment

Stuart Palmer June 16, 2013 - 7:41 am

Award winning Broadway director, Sam Buntrock, brings Shakespeare’s characters to life through a cast of accomplished, veteran actors in Annapurna Sriram (Hero), Aaron Clifton Moten (Claudio), Kathryn Meisle (Beatrice) and Michael Cumpsty (Benedick), but with plays (and life) the supporting roles are often key to the success.

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