Friday, March 25, 2011

Present Laughter, CWRU at the Cleveland Play House

(Dan Hendrock as Garry and Kelli Ruttle as Liz)

If Present Laughter is the last full production to occupy the venerable Brooks Theatre stage at the Cleveland Play House, consider it a blessing. The Brooks’ intimate brick-walled, wood-floored space has been home to countless shows. And this crisp and thoroughly delightful work mounted by the Case Western Reserve University MFA program comes across as a love letter both to the Brooks and to the Play House in general.

The self-deprecatory romp authored by Noel Coward is a heaping serving of luscious, urbane and oh-so-witty dialog. And the young performers from CWRU handle it all with sophistication and dexterity under the finely-tuned direction of Jerrold Scott. Although not perfect (and what, my dears, is?), this is an evening not to be missed by anyone who hungers for something suave without the unpleasant Sheen often evident in our current crass culture.

The play revolves totally around a Coward avatar named Garry Essendrine, a renowned British actor of romantic comedies who has just crossed the 40-year-old threshold. That milestone gives this bountifully theatrical person one more reason to flagrantly lament his cosseted existence and throw fey insults at anything that moves.

And there are plenty of people orbiting around Garry’s self-fueled and, um, flaming sun. His ex-wife Liz (a wonderfully wry Kelli Ruttle) is happy to be living separately but still loves the guy and runs interference for him. And since Garry is planning a six-week tour of Africa, there’s a lot going on.

Some of that activity involves the young actresses who “lose their latchkeys” and wind up at Garry’s door for succor. First, there’s Daphne (Caroline Santa) and later the aggressively amorous Joanna (Eva Gil). Joanna is intimately acquainted with Garry’s professional pals Morris (Yan Tual) and Hugo (Michael Herbert), and they all figure in one of the tangled subplots that send Garry reeling (although it doesn’t take much).

Among Garry’s household staff, Kim Krane as his secretary Monica is a deadpan treat, delivering each of her putdowns with acerbic bite and a nice twist of the knife. And always without ever changing her expression. In a broader bit of buffoonery, Erin Bunting turns the sour Miss Erikson into a chain-smoking apparition who shuffles about in her own cigarette haze.

Although he has few lines, TJ Gainley manages to make Fred the valet a sweet and sympathetic person as he faithfully attends to everyone’s needs. And many laughs are generated by Andrew Gorell who plays an offensive young playwright Roland Maule who won’t take “No!” or “Get out!” as useful directives.

In the key role of Garry, Dan Hendrock is amusing in all the right ways, dropping his character’s acidic bon mots with deft assurance and prowling his environs like a silk-clad jaguar. However, there are moments, particularly in the first act, when he seems trapped into speed-reading some long speeches. These are juicy soliloquies that should be milked rather than rushed.

There’s also a rather sad subtext to Garry’s character that goes largely unexplored: the actor who is so often “on” that he has no way to turn himself off.

That said, this production is delicious—from the lush set designed by Jill Davis to Kristine L. Davies’ elegant costumes. The Brooks is going away, theater lovers, and this show is a very fond and hilarious farewell.

Present Laughter

Through April 2 at the Brooks Theatre, Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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