In Noel Coward’s perennially entertaining comedy “Present Laughter,” matinee idol Garry Essendine (David Berti) approaches the advanced age of 40 still carrying on like an irresponsible teenager. A close-knit group of friends and colleagues conspire to keep him out of trouble. They scold him, love him and boss him around. They have known him too long to be taken in by his nonstop performing both offstage and on. (“That is my job, the one thing to which I must be faithful,” he declaims as they roll their eyes.)
Liz (Pamela Mayne), the wife from whom he is amicably separated; Morris Dixon (Bob Williams), who with Henry Lyppiat (Stephen Turner) arranges Garry’s venues and road tours; and Garry’s longtime secretary, Monica Reed (Anne Damon), all hover around the actor like a swarm of protective bees.
Unfortunately for them -- but fortunately for lovers of farce -- numerous outsiders think the stage Garry Essendine is the real Garry Essendine and are convinced that they alone can make him happy. They include a star-struck girl, Daphne Stillington (Sara Garland); a slightly mad aspiring playwright, Roland Maule (Evan Bernstein); and Henry’s conniving wife, Joanna (Tara Stepanian).
The production now at Beatrice Herford’s Vokes Theatre features a comfortable London drawing room (referred to as Garry’s studio) in a Tudor house, beautifully executed by set designer Stephen McGonagle and crew. A portrait of the self-absorbed protagonist dominates the room. The time is “the present,” although lines in the play, plus the hairstyles and costumes, indicate the present is 1939. A scratchy recording of a crooner who complains of being “world weary” adds to the atmosphere.
The hilarity builds as Garry tries to grab all the gusto before he is old. He is not interested in his reputation beyond death, only the here and now. As Shakespeare says in “Twelfth Night,” the source of Coward’s title, “What is love? ’Tis not hereafter; present mirth hath present laughter. ... Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
In denial about the passing of youth, Garry can’t resist fooling around, hiding women in the spare bedroom, from which they inconveniently pop out dressed in his pajamas. His urgency to seize the day overrides any concern for the disruptive consequences of his actions. He complains about his accumulating troubles as if they were entirely the result of outside forces conspiring against him.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure, true enough. And in this play, ageing and death keep grinning in the background no matter how much they are made light of. (Morris: I shall never speak to you again till the day that I die. Garry: Well, we’ll have a nice little chat then.)
Tillie Sweet plays Daphne’s aunt, Lady Saltburn, with an appealing air of bewilderment; Garry’s long-suffering valet is Robert Zawistowski; and Melissa Sine is Miss Erikson, a chain-smoking maid of limited English, who is into paranormal phenomena, feather dusters and plumbers’ wrenches.
Berti ably holds the center of the maelstrom together with his comedic timing. Williams’s facial expressions make the petulant Morris especially amusing, and Bernstein draws repeated laughter as the hanger-on playwright everyone tries to get rid of. His character also gives Coward a great opportunity unburden himself about highbrow wannabes who think they know more than successful playwrights.
The play suggests that being constantly on stage, even in your personal life, makes you particularly prone to misunderstandings and confusion. That point might have been clearer if Garry were the only one being over-the-top histrionic. With pretty much the whole cast indulging in that hello-dahling-mahvelous-to-see-you theatrical thing, Garry’s style doesn’t always stand out. It’s true, though, that several other characters are putting on an act, hiding secrets of their own, so maybe the real point is that few people are free from artifice.
A couple of the casting choices were not quite on target, but with many actors being Vokes regulars, the theater’s delightful ensemble work was much in evidence.
The play was directed by D Schweppe and produced by Donnie Baillargeon. Betsy Burr designed the lighting and Elizabeth Tustian, the costumes. “Present Laughter” continues through March 15. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.