Fred Partridge photo Gary Essendine (Dann Wilhelm) must contend with the predatory Joanna Lyppiatt (Jenn Lane) in Noel Coward’s comedy Present Laughter, at the White Rock Playhouse until April 20.

Present Laughter, but show goes past curfew

Commendable cast in Coward comedy, but show runs long

The good news is there are still (as of Thursday) three performances left to revel in some fine ensemble playing in White Rock Players Club’s production of the Noel Coward comedy Present Laughter.

The bad news is that you’ll have to be prepared to settle in for a marathon evening of theatre.

At three hours, counting one intermission, the play is – how shall I put it? – just a bit too much past most White Rock theatre-goers’ curfew.

Granted many in the largely senior audience last Wednesday were hanging on every word, and seemed to be enjoying themselves right up to the final curtain – a tribute to the generally strong performances, and impressive stamina, of director Susanne de Pencier’s cast. But others had wandered off long before that.

As co-stage manager Charles Buettner noted in his prefatory comments, plays of this vintage (Coward wrote Laughter at the end of the 1930s) were geared for an era when theatre-going was still an ‘event.’ Audiences arrived expecting a full evening with their footlight idols, and several intermissions were an opportunity to see and be seen, as well as consume copious amounts of alcohol.

Much has changed since those more leisurely times, and we now demand of our entertainments – whatever the platform – that they get to the point much quicker.

I dare say this production has done some trimming of Coward’s text. But the pace at which de Pencier directed is, for me, too measured, with many lines – funny as they are – delivered as momentous pronouncements. The words are Coward’s – not God’s, by way of Moses.

I don’t believe that even Coward himself – as enamoured as he was with his own ‘talent to amuse’ – intended this witty spoof of his own lifestyle as a man of the theatre to be anything more than a light entertainment, or to be subjected to quite such a reverential treatment or adagio-like tempo.

Many of the lines appear to have been written as dry throwaways, or flippant sotto voce asides in a generally droll depiction of matinee idol Garry Essendine’s chaotic home life. And many of them would probably be even funnier played that way.

One of Coward’s major jokes about the theatre types in Essendine’s circle, after all, is that they’re the kind of people who can go from supposed emotional turmoil to shop-talk at, almost literally, the drop of a hat.

De Pencier’s manifest respect for the material has, nonetheless, ensured a commendably conscientious production that does find its share of laughs.

A large measure of the success of this show is earned by ubiquitous Dann Wilhelm’s assured, energetic performance as Essendine, in which he captures much of the chronic lothario’s tendency toward self-dramatization and inner childishness.

Versatile Lori Tych, as his tolerant ex-wife Liz, offers the perfect match for Essendine – providing a wealth of sophistication and credible empathy, even as her character sees through all of his attitudes and well-rehearsed poses.

Similarly, the always-welcome Michelle Collier, as Essendine’s long-serving personal assistant Monica, offers a subtle portrait of a pragmatist without illusions, whether managing the actor’s tantrums or coping with the wandering flibbertigibbets who, it seems, turn up in his spare bedroom with monotonous regularity.

As one of these – aspiring ingenue Daphne Stillington – relative newcomer Janelle Carss has to contend with a character that bears every sign of having been sketched by Coward as a one-dimensional ‘type.’ But the aplomb with which she tackles the assignment suggests a notable comedienne is in the process of emerging – one who will be worth watching for in future productions.

Ever-reliable comedy player Reginald Pillay wins his expected laughs as unhinged and obsessive would-be playwright Roland Maule – demonstrating that the ‘stalker’ stereotype was identified as a hazard of the business even as early as the ’30s.

Frequent White Rock leading player Jenn Lane, as Joanna Lyppiatt, wife of Gary’s producer, takes a big step outside of her usual casting range to deliver a convincing portrayal of a predatory, calculating adulteress.

As her husband Hugo, Greg Tunner offers a smooth characterization, managing overwrought without falling into the trap of overplaying. And Heather Christie is a delight with a pitch and accent-perfect cameo as the aristocratic Lady Saltburn.

Speaking of accents, Paul Cowhig and Dianna Gola-Harvey also register agreeably in supporting roles as Essendine’s servants, the cheery cockney valet Fred and the Swedish spiritualist – and opportunist – Miss Erickson.

White Rock regular Bryce Paul Mills – more accustomed to broad comedy – makes a praiseworthy effort as Essendine’s tippling, over-emotional agent Morris. Sadly, however, he does not seem to belong to the play’s 1930s milieu, either in comportment or in assigned wardrobe.

Once again, the White Rock Players have set themselves a daunting challenge by choosing an era and location-specific period show – placing considerable demands on the production team for a design that adequately reflects their commitment to the play.

This time out, co-producer Andrea Olund is to be commended for creating an impressive, and convincingly practical, set of a London studio apartment, circa 1938.

And costume designers Chelsea Brown and Laura McKenzie have, at the very least, demonstrated some familiarity with late 1930s fashion concepts – even though some unaccountable lapses in styling still threaten the overall credibility of the exercise.

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